At first glance, the scene looked familiar. Russian protesters gathered for an "unauthorized" demonstration, and riot police moved in to club, kick, disperse, and arrest them.
But there was something different about protests in the Far Eastern Russian city of Vladivostok in December over a deeply unpopular tariff hike on imported cars.
The police breaking up the demonstration were not local, but a force flown in from the Moscow region especially for the job. The reason: law-enforcement officials in Vladivostok had made it clear to the Kremlin that they were not interested in using force to break up the protests.
The fact that the Kremlin felt the need to fly riot police more than 9,000 kilometers across the country to break up a small demonstration is a stark illustration of how nervous Russia's political elite has become as the global economic crisis deepens and signs of popular discontent become more manifest.
On January 31, thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest the government's handling of the economy and accusing the authorities of suppressing dissent.
The fact that regional authorities were prepared to defy Moscow in December demonstrates the degree to which Vladimir Putin's authoritarian political system, which Russians call the "power vertical," is coming under strain.
If the situation gets worse and there is a real threat of a colored revolution like in Georgia and Ukraine, then the authorities will use the most decisive methods
"The vertical has stopped functioning. Orders come down from on high, but they are not carried out down below, because the bureaucrats are looking out for themselves," says Dmitry Oreshkin, a Moscow-based political analyst.
"It is reminiscent of the Soviet model, where decisions were made at the top, and lower officials stepped on the brakes. The situation resembles what we had prior to the Soviet collapse."
Since coming to power in 2000, Putin has worked to steadily create a centralized and authoritarian political system in order to effectively rule and modernize Russia. Coercion played a role in this, to be sure.
But mostly the Putin regime relied on a vast network of patronage -- similar to the Soviet nomenklatura system -- in which key state posts, privileges, business assets, and favors were doled out to officials across Russia's vast regions and republics in return for loyalty and obedience.
But with oil prices falling and Russia's economy faltering, Kremlin largesse is in increasingly short supply, leading analysts to conclude that the seemingly sturdy system built by Putin is now being severely stretched. And the strains are visible everywhere.
"The battle within the ruling class never went away, it just calmed down a bit. But now it is heating up again," says Vladimir Pribylovsky of the Moscow-based Panorama think tank.Drama In The Diarchy
Schisms within the ruling elite in Moscow, always lingering just below the surface, are becoming sharper and more pronounced. Regional elites are becoming less intimidated by the Kremlin and increasingly assertive.
And despite public displays of unity, there is discernible tension in Russia's ruling tandem -- President Dmitry Medvedev, the de jure head of state, and Prime Minister Putin, the country's de facto ruler.
Until recently, this so-called diarchy appeared to be working well, as Medvedev appeared resigned to his role as a place holder who would keep the Kremlin warm until Putin inevitably returned to power. But with the economy souring, and the country's political future became less clear, fissures are becoming increasingly visible.
In late December, according to a recent report in the weekly "Novoye vremya," Medvedev met with a group of economists who warned that Russia was facing a looming catastrophe and that measures undertaken by the government were not sufficient.
The president sent the group's conclusions to Putin, where they reportedly received a cool reception. Putin, "Novaya vremya" writes, viewed Medvedev's move "as an attempt to take management of the economic crisis out of his hands."
Analysts say there are sharp disagreements on the economy between the security service "siloviki," like Putin's First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, on the one hand, and economists close to Medvedev, like Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, on the other.
March of Dissent, Moscow, January 31
"The Putin group favors strengthening administrative pressure. The Medvedev group thinks the authorities need to do more than make threats and bang their fists on the table. They think there needs to be a better understanding of economic interests and rational economic behavior," Oreshkin says.
Putin and Medvedev have gone to great lengths to present a public facade of unity. On January 3, for example, Russian television showed them enjoying a ski trip and drinking tea together in Sochi. A Newly Assertive President
But even as they try to appear cordial and friendly in public, analysts say their respective allies are battling behind the scenes. Putin is still clearly the boss, analysts say, but in recent months Medvedev has become increasingly assertive.
Medvedev has 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. The original legislation, which was severely criticized by rights activists, was written by Putin's government.
And following the Vladivostok demonstrations in December, Putin wanted the regional police chief fired for refusing to crack down on the protesters, but Medvedev refused to sack him. Medvedev has also publicly criticized Putin's government for taking too long to implement a program to combat the economic crisis.
The president has also become less shy and more proactive about using his powers.
He managed to install his preferred candidate, former opposition politician Nikita Belykh, as governor of the Kirov Oblast. And he may have contributed to preventing the siloviki from getting their favored candidate, Sergei Chemezov -- the head of state corporation Russian Technologies -- named as chairman of Norilsk Nickel, Russia's largest mining company.
Instead, the job went to Aleksandr Voloshin, who served as Kremlin chief of staff under former President Boris Yeltsin, and later as head of the United Energy Systems electricity monopoly until its dissolution in July.
"Medvedev is being very careful and doesn't want to use all his possibilities because he understands that Putin holds the real levers of power," Oreshkin says. "But the worse the economy gets, the more people will blame Putin."Regional Discord
With Moscow divided, some regional leaders are starting to assert their autonomy.
Lawmakers in the Primorsky Krai passed a resolution supporting the Vladivostok protests and calling on the government to revoke auto-import tariffs.
Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiev, for example, has openly opposed new educational standards imposed by Moscow. Officials in both Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, meanwhile, are calling for regional governors to be nominated locally, by the majority party in regional parliaments, rather than appointed from Moscow.
Analysts say these cases could be harbingers.
"These are signs that we could be repeating the experience of the 1990s when many regions sought to move out from under from Moscow's control. Moscow doesn't trust local law-enforcement officials," says Yevgeny Volk, head of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office.
But even as the elite begins to show signs of division, there are also strong indications that the authorities are preparing to deal harshly with any threats to the regime's rule.
The State Duma has already passed legislation eliminating jury trials in cases of terrorism, hostage-taking, the organization of illegal armed formations, mass disturbances, treason, espionage, sedition, armed rebellion, and sabotage.
Volk says that as divided as the Russian elite is, they will likely not hesitate to use force if they think their rule is under threat.
"If the situation gets worse and there is a real threat of a colored revolution like in Georgia and Ukraine, then the authorities will use the most decisive methods," Volk says.