The last time Gagarin hosted a full-blown three-ring political circus was in 1961, when its favourite son, Yuri, made the first manned space flight and gave his hometown a new name, according to an article by Financial Times.
On Thursday, the sleepy place outside Moscow was once again at the top of the nation’s news agenda. Buses, official limousines and police escorts roared into town from the Kremlin carrying President Dmitry Medvedev, a host of ministers and agency heads, dozens of journalists and hundreds of camouflage-clad security men.
Mr Medvedev has been fighting for the limelight since assuming his post in May, and his trip to Gagarin was the latest and the loudest in a series of carefully orchestrated media events designed to establish him as an independent political figure. It is widely assumed that while Mr Medvedev has the title of president, real power continues to lie with his close friend Vladimir Putin, who stepped down as president to become prime minister earlier this year.
According to a poll by the Levada Centre, a Moscow-based sociological research group, 36 per cent of Russians believe that Mr Putin continues to be behind all big decisions, while only 9 per cent believe Mr Medvedev is in charge.
The relationship between the two men has been mostly harmonious, but the new president would clearly like to move out from under his predecessor’s shadow.
To add weight to his normally soft-spoken persona, Mr Medvedev has recently begun mimicking Mr Putin’s tough guy television style, lacing his official-sounding pronouncements with slang and street jargon. There was also plenty of finger jabbing, fist clenching and table slamming as he ran a carefully staged and nationally televised meeting in Gagarin between the town’s small business owners and a contrite looking group of government officials – driven in from Moscow especially for the purpose of being public whipping boys – as Mr Medvedev announced a new plan to fight official corruption.
“Who is biting you?” he asked the small businessmen, using the slang term for bribe-taking, in a meeting designed to showcase his anti-corruption measures. “Are the law-enforcement institutions up to their old naughty tricks?” he asked.
Then settling his gaze on the fidgety-looking Moscow grandees, who included Russia’s interior minister, the general prosecutor and the head of the tax administration, Mr Medvedev said: “Let’s hear from the head of some of the agencies we have been talking about.”
He then grilled each minister in turn on corruption in his organisation, scolding: “Our law-enforcement agencies and government authorities should stop terrorising business.
“In this country people attach a special importance to signals,” he added, meaning signals from the Kremlin. “You can consider I gave you such a signal.”
Mr Medvedev’s comments on Thursday caused a stir by suggesting a rift with Mr Putin over the issue of government interference in business. Last week, Mr Putin sparked a sell-off in the stock market after he criticised Russian metals company Mechel for price gouging, driving Mechel’s stock price sharply down.
The presidential minders and press spokespeople quickly moved in to squelch any suggestion that the comments were directed at Mr Putin, or that any rift had opened between the two.
However, Mr Medvedev’s words, “Stop terrorising business”, hung in the air for days after the Mechel affair – and for a week after Robert Dudley, the CEO of BP TNK, the troubled joint venture between BP and a group of Russian oligarchs, left Russia blaming official harassment.
Mr Medvedev’s comments followed criticism by one of his advisers, Igor Yurgens, of Mr Putin’s comments on Mechel. “It is not correct to destroy your own stock market . . . and wipe off $60 billion,” Mr Yurgens said on Wednesday. “It’s just not the right thing.”
However, Mr Medvedev was careful to adhere to the Putin line, admonishing business owners on the need to pay their taxes and obey laws. Analysts who predicted friction between the two men – close friends from St Petersburg – have so far been frustrated. Russian government offices have taken to displaying pictures of both together, rather than having to choose one or the other.
“It’s the biggest question, how this two-headed regime is going to work,” said a journalist from the Kremlin press pool who was covering Thursday’s trip. “None of us know the answer yet.”