Accessibility links

The Sochi Summit

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev in Sochi

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev in Sochi

They took a walk along Sochi's seaside embankment together. They watched a football game. And when the evening was over, they shared a big friendly bear hug before going their separate ways.

Just a normal day of male bonding for Russia's ruling diarchy, President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

It seems that whenever relations between Putin and Medvedev appear strained, the two show up in Sochi together to make a public display of camaraderie.

Remember their Sochi tea party back in January?

Back then, the Russian media was filled with stories that Putin and Medvedev were at odds. Medvedev had criticized Putin's government over its handling of the economic crisis and instructed his administration to redraft a bill that would expand the definition of treason and espionage to assure that it doesn't violate human rights.

Analysts say the main tension is less between Putin and Medvedev personally than with their respective teams -- Putin's siloviki and Medvedev's civiliki -- who have diametrically opposed visions of how to deal with the economic crisis.

In the past eight months, the tension has only increased and intensified with Medvedev allies like Igor Yurgens, chairman of the Institute for Contemporary Development, suggesting that the crisis necessitates some form of liberalization.

The bonding in Sochi came as Medvedev has become increasingly frisky about asserting his authority.

He has ordered prosecutors to start an investigation of Russia's state corporations, which observers see as a potential assault on Igor Sechin, Putin's deputy prime minister and leader of the siloviki clan of security service veterans. The president also appears to be trying to get his close ally, Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov, appointed Prosecutor-General.

Few would seriously argue that Putin doesn't still hold the upper hand with his ironclad control of the security services. If push comes to shove, Medvedev's team of lawyers, economists, and technocrats are no match for the FSB, after all.

But in a nose-diving economy, those technocrats might be Russia's best hope and Medveddev seems to understand this.

We of course don't know what -- if anything -- of substance Putin and Medvedev talked about in Sochi. The whole thing could have been nothing more than a pr exercise and the alleged tension between the two could be nothing but a ruse, a game of good cop-bad cop.

But the more this drags on, the more convinced I become that the tension is real, growing, and merits close scrutiny.

With its centuries-long tradition of domineering rulers, Russia has historically not fared well when power was shared at the very top. With some exceptions, divided government has tended to lead to deep splits in the bureaucracy, backroom intrigue, vicious infighting, and often crippling instability.

And sooner or later, one side will win out.

In March 2008, months before Medvedev was sworn in as president, I asked the Moscow- based analyst Andrei Ryabov how he thought the diarchy would work. Ryabov, who I consider to be one of the more astute observers of Russian politics, predicted conflict between the Putin and Medvedev teams, despite the outwardly warm relations between the two:

What we have is not just a conflict of interests, but a conflict between visions of Russia's future and the future of Russian politics. Under the conditions of this institutional diarchy, as it has been called, it is not possible to combine these different views and policies. Somebody from the center, probably in a short period of time, must take a leading role and impose their views on the future of Russian politics.

Russian television noted that Medvedev smiled broadly for the cameras when he and Putin hugged at the end of their meeting. But the president's smile faded and his facial expression became deadly serious as turned away and got into his car.

That reckoning may be coming sooner than we think. It is, after all, August.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


Latest Podcast