The Medvedev and Putin tandem at the Kremlin - The Economist - April 16, 2011

It all seemed so clear a year ago. Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's president, tweeted and blogged about modernisation, while Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister and the other half of the tandem, pulled the strings, drove anything that moved and posed for cameras as he prepared to stroll back into the Kremlin in 2012, this time for two six-year terms.
But in recent weeks the picture has become hazier. Putin's return to the Kremlin is looking less certain, and Russia's political system seems even less stable. The differences between the two men are mainly stylistic, but the signs of a political struggle are real.
Even as Putin keeps his cards close to his chest, Medvedev is displaying an urge to stay on as president. Over the past few weeks he has taken to sporting a khaki rollneck and a bomber jacket emblazoned with the words "Russia's Commander-in-Chief", perhaps to remind people of his status.
He wore this garb on March 21 speaking about Libya. Less than 24 hours after Putin had given his ‘private' opinion that UN intervention (which Russia did not veto in the Security Council) was ‘flawed and inadequate' and reminded him (and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi) of a ‘medieval crusade', Medvedev rebuked him. It was no good, said the president, ‘flapping the wings now' and ‘under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions…such as ‘crusades' and so on.'
Even more significant, Medvedev's team managed to reverse the coverage of Libya on Channel One, Russia's main television channel, which is controlled by Putin's friends. It apparently took just one telephone call from the Kremlin to switch the tone from vehemently anti-Western to broadly neutral.
And this was just a start. On March 30, Medvedev ordered government ministers to vacate their seats on the boards of state firms. He set a deadline of October and even named names. They included Igor Sechin, chairman of Rosneft, Russia's state oil company, and one of Putin's most trusted deputy prime ministers, in charge of energy.
Sechin is seen as the main force behind the attack on Yukos and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. His appointment as Rosneft's chairman in 2004 sealed the transfer of Yukos's assets.
Yet it is unclear whether Medvedev's order marks an offensive against Putin's state capitalism or is a cosmetic measure to make it look more civilised. Much will depend on how the Kremlin now manages state firms and who replaces Sechin and other ministers.
Two options
A final, if more indirect, sign of political infighting is a reshuffling of some assets (roads, television, energy) into the hands of Putin's friends and acquaintances. The timing of this political and economic activity is almost certainly linked to the decision about who will rule after the presidential election in 2012.
Polling day itself will have little to do with the selection of Russia's next president, which will as usual take place behind closed doors over the next few months.
Medvedev has two options for staying on. His first and surely preferred choice is to persuade Putin that letting him serve another term would suit everybody in their clan. One of Medvedev's selling points is the backing of most of Russia's corporate elite and good relations with the West, which will guarantee the safety and legitimacy of most business.
His second option is to persuade Putin to step down, or to sack him. This would amount to a palace coup. Nothing in Medvedev's behaviour so far suggests that he is capable of such a step. But it cannot be ruled out: Russia does spring surprises. Some in the elite argue that, although Medvedev lacks his own power base, he has the most important resource of all: the seal and signature of the president. Others are more sceptical. As a political joke doing the rounds in Moscow puts it, "the Kremlin is divided into a Putin and a Medvedev camp. The only question is which camp Medvedev will join."
Since the Kremlin has eliminated most public political discourse, few people know what really goes on inside the government. But it looks as if the period of political ‘stability' in Russia that marked Putin's years in power is over.
Russia has now entered a period of turbulence. Whether the rivalry between Putin and Medvedev is real or imagined, it has started to resonate with more serious swings in the public's mood.
The elite and an increasing number of ordinary Russians seem to be getting fed up with Putin and his crony capitalism. His stunts no longer seem to entertain the public. Opinion polls show a drop in both Putin's and Medvedev's ratings. An increasing number of Russians say that their country is moving in the wrong direction. Celebrities, artists and journalists who, only a couple of years ago, looked down on the political opposition as ‘losers' are now critical of Putin.
"It is no longer fashionable to like Putin," one celebrity remarks.
Some analysts are starting to press alarm buttons. A report by the Centre for Strategic Research, a think-tank close to the government, says that people's mistrust of the system as a whole is growing; that the Kremlin is losing legitimacy; and that a political crisis in Russia is now under way. To the report's authors it has echoes of the late 1980s, when delegitimisation of state power was one factor that helped to bring on the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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