Now it's President Dmitry Medvedev's turn to take a crack at solving the riddle. He's given a fireside chat promising greater transparency. He's pledged to bring fresh faces into the government. He's stalled a controversial bill expanding the definition of espionage. And he's met with the editor of the opposition "Novaya gazeta."
In comments to "Russia Profile," Nikolai Sluchevsky, the president of the Stolypin Memorial Center for Government Development and Reform (and the great-grandson of Pyotr Stolypin, the Russian prime minister from 1906 to 1911), suggested that Medvedev's recent overtures are tactical maneuvers based on the needs of the moment:
I think Sluchevsky is on to something. The way the debate has been framed since Medvedev began raising his profile -- some say it points to a split with Putin, others suggest the two are engaged in an elaborate game of "good cop-bad cop" -- misses the essence of how Russia is ruled.
In October 2007, I wrote the following and still believe it holds true today:
This inner sanctum, however, has always been fraught with bitter rivalries. Putin's role has always been to manage the "personal, political, and commercial conflicts among its members, and preventing any one faction in the ruling elite from becoming too powerful."
One of the more intense rivalries in Putin's inner circle has been between Medvedev and First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, the informal leader of the so-called "siloviki" clan of security-service veterans that Putin brought to Moscow when he became president.
Here is how Dmitry Travin of the Center for Modernization Studies at the European University of St. Petersburg described Sechin in a recent interview:
Sechin opposed Putin's decision to pass the presidency over to Medvedev. He instead argued that Putin should change the constitution and remain in power indefinitely. He is also opposed to any thaw, even a temporary and tactical one. He is trying to have Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, a Medvedev ally, removed.
In comments reported by "Moskovsky komsomolets," political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin explains why the "collective Putin" (which most analysts say also includes National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, military procurement chief Viktor Cherkesov, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, and Federal Antinarcotics Service head Viktor Ivanov) has been behaving so erratically lately:
What all this seems to suggest is that Putin, as the ultimate arbiter, has not yet decided whether he wants a tactical thaw or not. And I find it difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that Putin -- or Medvedev for that matter -- wants any thaw to be anything but tactical and temporary.
-- Brian Whitmore