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They went skiing. They chatted about old times. They mingled with ordinary folks.

And then they had tea.

It was the perfect photo-op for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as TV cameras captured the athletic Kremlin leaders slaloming the slopes at a ski resort in Sochi during a January 3 weekend getaway.

Back at the hotel, the two were joined by other officials for a high-powered tea party. And when it was over, Medvedev picked up the tab.

"The president pays for everything," Putin deadpanned.

"That's my work," Medvedev answered.

Slow news day? Well, yeah. Russia pretty much shuts down between New Year's and Orthodox Christmas. But there was likely more to this little puff piece than an editor looking for some light filler for the evening news broadcast.

As Robert Coalson wrote here, there has been more than a bit of speculation lately about how well the Medvedev-Putin (or, more correctly, Putin-Medvedev) tandem has been working out. Putin turned the powerful Russian presidency over to his handpicked successor and protege in May, got himself appointed prime minister and leader of the ruling Unified Russia party.

Medvedev got all the formal accoutrements of power, but few doubted that Putin was the one in charge. And even fewer doubted that Putin would return to the presidency sooner or later with Medvedev's acquiescence.

But lately, there have been rumblings that the economic crisis was taking its toll on Russia's two-headed tsar. Speaking on December 29, Medvedev hinted that he did not completely agree with how Putin's government was handling the economic crisis:

In my opinion, the anti-crisis program, which the government is implementing today, is balanced -- but, of course, it is not ideal, because there are no ideal programs.

It may not seem like much, but in Russia such nuanced statements matter, and are usually more than enough to set tongues wagging. What do you mean "not ideal"?!

The online newspaper gazeta.ru recently quoted Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin as saying that Medvedev was biding his time before making a move for real power:

Medvedev will summon up his courage, wait until Putin loses his popularity because the economy is getting worse with every passing day, and then will dismiss Putin, remaining as the sole leader of the country.

Oreshkin's position is in the minority among Russia watchers, few of whom think Medvedev has the will, desire, or means to try to outfox a wily KGB veteran like Putin. But what is clear is that as Russia's economic miracle fades, tensions in the ruling elite are becoming sharper. And the last thing the Kremlin needs right now is for an increasingly restless public to see a divided elite in the midst of an economic crisis.

Better that they see their leaders skiing and sipping tea.

-- 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

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