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Does Russia-Georgia-War Film Signal A Rift Between Putin And Medvedev?

  • Robert Coalson

Some analysts think their could be cracks appearing in the once close relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (left).

Some analysts think their could be cracks appearing in the once close relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (left).

A slickly produced film featuring some leading Russian military figures who accuse then-President Dmitry Medvedev of indecisiveness on the eve of Russia's brief August 2008 war with Georgia continues to produce shockwaves among the country's political elite.

The film has been seen as an attack on Medvedev, who is now prime minister, and a bid to portray President Vladimir Putin as a far-seeing and reliable leader.

Timed to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the conflict, in which Russian forces routed Georgian troops in just five days and which led to Moscow's recognition of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, "The Lost Day" asserts that Medvedev and his team in the Kremlin were "afraid to give the command" to launch the operation.

They had to be given a "kick" from then Prime Minister Putin, who was in Beijing for the Olympic Games at the time.

It features a number of military figures, most prominently former chief of the General Staff General Yury Baluyevsky.

As the ominous-sounding narrator of the film states, the main message of "The Lost Day" is that avoidable causalities were incurred because of Medvedev's indecision.

"All the experts in this film agree that there was an inexplicable and tragic loss of time," the narrator says. "And what was needed from the country's leaders at that moment? That they would stop thinking about their own image. That they would stop conducting humiliating consultations with foreign partners. That they would acknowledge that a war had been launched and remember their obligation to protect civilian lives and military personnel. This is really a matter of great official responsibility."

No Longer In Tandem

Igor Bunin, head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, told the Russian news agency RosBalt that there are elements within the ruling elite who want to remove all vestiges of the "tandem" arrangement that prevailed while Medvedev was president.

Those elements want to see Medvedev reduced to the role of "a technical prime minister" with no room for independent action, Bunin says.

Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, doesn't go as far as Bunin, arguing that Medvedev is already a very weak prime minister. But he does see a "revision" being undertaken of Medvedev's time at the helm.

"It is clear that a revision is going on of the already not-very-rich inheritance of the Medvedev presidency," he said. "In this sense, we can say this film is a continuation of what parliament and United Russia have been doing quite openly by reversing a whole series of [Medvedev's] initiatives."

Petrov argues that, Putin is psychologically uncomfortable with the idea of Medvedev receiving credit for things that happened during his presidency when Putin himself was actually the one in charge.

But he adds that Putin is nevertheless satisfied with the current political arrangement -- for the time being, at least:

"Medvedev -- no matter how weak and even comical he looks now -- nonetheless still embodies some sort of stability for some people in the West and some sort of hopes for Russia's democratic development," he said. "I think that Putin isn't interested in belittling Medvedev or weakening his image because then this effect will be lost."

Political Ambitions

However, an analysis by journalist Mikhail Rostovsky in the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" on August 9 notes that Medvedev genuinely expected to be allowed to run for a second term as president.

It also claims that Putin was not pleased when Medvedev said he would step down peacefully only in exchange for being named prime minister.

Medvedev has made no secret of the fact that he would like to run for president again in 2018. However, he has never had the support of the powerful siloviki faction of the ruling elite -- those with ties to the military, the security services, and the defense industry -- informally headed by former Deputy Prime Minister and close Putin insider Igor Sechin.

According to Vladimir Pribylovsky, a Moscow-based political analyst, this is where Medvedev will face the greatest challenge to his political ambitions.

"The main political conflict in the country is between Sechin and Medvedev," he said.

Written in Prague by Robert Coalson based on reporting from Moscow by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondents Valeria Shabayeva and Danila Galperovich
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to

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