Medvedev Catches Listeners Off Guard

President Dmitry Medvedev's speech on Wednesday appeared to catch many of those in attendance by surprise, and they hurried past reporters to leave the Kremlin after it was over.

In sharp contrast, the governors, lawmakers and other officials were more than happy to talk about their expectations for the president's first state-of-the-nation address before it began.

In the speech, Medvedev offered a motley package of proposals to extend the presidential term to six years, station Russian missiles near Poland and liberalize Russia's political life.

Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Khloponin played down the idea that the politicians were stunned, explaining that they just had a lot to think about now and therefore could not speak with reporters. "This has yet to be comprehended," he said about Medvedev's proposals.

St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko added, "This really is a political bombshell in regard to many of the issues that he touched upon."

Those who did chat with reporters instead of swiftly leaving the Kremlin praised the president's proposals as justified, timely and even overdue.

"There are some new things, but I believe they are quite logical," Education and Science Minister Andrei Fursenko said.

Central Elections Commission chief Vladimir Churov sought to show he was on top of the situation, even though he could not provide details about the proposal to extend the presidential term.

"The election system is completely ready," he said, adding that appropriate changes to legislation would be made in due course. He did not elaborate on the details.

Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and Matviyenko said a longer presidential term would be a boon for the country. A six-year term "will allow the economy to work in a more stable manner," Kudrin said.

The highest-ranking officials preferred to duck hard questions or refused to talk to reporters altogether.

First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov said stationing Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad exclave would be expensive, but when asked what he thought of the extended presidential term, he abruptly left the hall.

Vladislav Surkov, a top Kremlin strategist who oversees domestic politics, ignored all pleas by reporters for comment and quickly left with Kaliningrad Governor Georgy Boos at his side.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who listened to his protege's address attentively but for the most part emotionlessly from a front-row seat, did not come out to reporters either before or after the address. Putin's last presidential address — a hawkish speech that included the announcement that Russia would suspend its participation in a key Soviet-era arms treaty — was widely praised and interrupted by applause more than 40 times. Medvedev's first address was interrupted by applause more than 50 times.

Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov did not address reporters. It was a stark contrast from last year when he basked in the spotlight of television, repeating Putin's message word for word. Medvedev did not address reporters after Putin's speech.

It remained unclear at the end of the day whether Medvedev had succeeded in meeting the expectations of state officials. A State Duma deputy with United Russia, Boris Nikonov, said before the speech that he was concerned that government measures to stem the financial crisis did not reach far-flung regions quickly enough. Liberal Democratic Party head Vladimir Zhirinovsky said he wanted to see a third of the governors dismissed. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov was concerned about safety in the Caucasus, while Alexander Shokhin, head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, complained that taxes for companies would go up from next year.

But if there was anyone who summed up what appeared to be on everybody's mind, it was a reporter who said the speech, for all its ambiguities, had left one thing perfectly clear. "We know that the next tsar will be there for six years," he said.

If he doesn't want to run for another six, that is.