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Fake Conflict And Real Risks: The Tandem's High-Wire Act

President Dmitry Medvedev (left) with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin greet each other before a Security Council meeting at the presidential residence in Gorki on January 28.

President Dmitry Medvedev (left) with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin greet each other before a Security Council meeting at the presidential residence in Gorki on January 28.

Here we go again.

At a closed-door meeting with his Human Rights Council last week, President Dmitry Medvedev said he would allow a panel of legal experts to review the case of jailed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Medvedev's comments led to speculation in the Russian media that he was considering pardoning the former Yukos CEO, who recently had an additional six years tacked on to the eight-year sentence he was close to completing.

And since conventional wisdom holds that a pardon would not sit well with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, another round of "the tandem is quarreling" chatter began spreading like wildfire.

That chatter got even louder when, a day after his meeting with the Human Rights Council, Medvedev called it “inadmissible” to declare that the January 24 terrorist attack on Moscow’s busiest airport was solved:

I consider it utterly inadmissible for anyone to announce that a crime has been solved before the investigation is complete, indictments are drawn up and sent to court and a verdict is handed down and comes into force. This crime isn’t solved, but there has been progress.

Medvedev's televised comments came shortly after Putin had -- wait for it -- said the crime had been solved.

The daily "Vedomosti" editorialized on the squabbling diarchy meme today, writing that "the impression is that the rift within the ruling tandem is widening," that their respective "spheres of influence are getting blurred" and that "turf wars" were breaking out.

Bud the daily wisely notes that this could all be just more pokazukha.

"The day when the tandem is supposed to nominate their would-be candidate for president is drawing nearer. The closer this day, the fiercer the polemics within the tandem," "Vedomosti" opined. "Or is that something suggested by political technologists?"

The "Vedomosti" editorial points out, correctly in my opinion, that both Putin and Medvedev are interested in maintaining suspense until the last possible moment, which keeps the bureaucracy on their toes and allows both parties to keep their options open:

Observers point out that Medvedev and Putin argue with caution and discretion, never harming the other but clearly promoting their own objectives. The reputation of the other partner within the tandem is never affected but the tension is maintained in the relations between their teams.
The disappearance of suspense as a result of the weakening of one member of the tandem will definitely affect the existing political arrangements. The Russian bureaucracy will immediately turn is back on the lame duck which is not what each member of the tandem wants for the other at this point. Better to leave things as they are and improve positions for the final confrontation.

I have recently come to the tentative conclusion that Putin and Medvedev are actually on the same page and that Plan A at this point is for the tandem to remain in place, with Medvedev remaining president and Putin remaining in charge -- either as prime minister or in some other post, possibly head of United Russia. As long as the Russia's deep state -- Putin's siloviki allies -- continue backing him, his official position is unimportant. (The most comprehensive post I have written to date is here.)

But Plan A today could easily be derailed by events before it is time to make a decision who will stand in the March 2012 presidential elections. So they need to keep up the illusion of suspense.

This, however, carries serious risks.

As "Vedomosti" points out in its editorial, today's pokazukha conflict could become the real thing tomorrow -- especially since for Putin's and Medvedev's respective loyalists, the conflict is already pretty real:

What is happening now is similar to a probing action where each player is trying to outmaneuver the other and force him to make a wrong move. The moment that happens, the quasi-conflict might escalate into a real one. And this turn of events will shove the conflict and the warring sides with it into the full blaze of public politics - which is something both have grown unaccustomed to.

-- 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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