When Vladimir Putin took to the airwaves on Dec. 3 for his annual call-in show on state-run television, the questions and Putin's answers appeared natural and unprompted. But as with many high-profile political campaigns in the West, little is left to chance at the upper echelons of Russia's leadership, especially when the Prime Minister's image makers want to send a message to the public. Which is why, says Andrei Kryukov, a student who asked Putin about his plans for the 2012 elections, he had been steered by Putin's press service and coached for two days before the live show went on the air. Putin's answer to Kryukov's question and one other was clear and direct. Yes, he told the millions of viewers watching the show, he would think about running for President again. And no, nobody should hold their breath for his giving up power.
If the Q&A session is anything to go by, Russia's democracy will probably stay tightly choreographed. "It was very well organized," says Kryukov of the rehearsals for the show. "They gathered together people from various institutes across the country, and one of those was our institute," he says, referring to the St. Petersburg State Mining Institute, which he has studied at since 2005.
Kryukov, a graduate student in open pit mine development, says he and four classmates caught a train to Moscow and were housed at a resort outside the capital that is owned by the Russian State Technology University. "That's where all the students were taken. They treated us really well. We didn't pay for any of it," he says. Rehearsals for the program lasted two days and were organized by Putin's press service and producers from the state-owned Vesti television channel. "We had other questions, ones that were more relevant to us, about mining, about the education system and so on," Kryukov says. "Then it was decided that the question should be more general, more significant. So that's how it came out."
In a statement to TIME, Putin's press service said it had helped state TV producers organize the event and rehearsals but had not helped select questions. "Of course we did not help them formulate their questions. People asked their questions on their own and chose what questions they would ask," the statement said.
Putin's answer was hardly surprising. In 2008, with the constitution barring him from running for a third four-year term, Putin stepped down as President, chose ally Dmitri Medvedev as a successor and then took the post of Prime Minister for himself. Widely regarded as a placeholder President, Medvedev has no political power base of his own, little charisma and a rather awkward habit of trying to imitate Putin's macho demeanor. Many of his key advisers once worked on Putin's staff.
Indeed, just hours after Putin made his remarks about the 2012 vote, Medvedev chimed in with his support. "Prime Minister Putin said he doesn't rule out this possibility [of seeking re-election], and I also say I don't rule it out," Medvedev said. "We will be able to agree how not to elbow each other, but to make a reasonable decision for the nation," he told a press conference in Rome, where he had traveled to meet the Pope.