And then it fades. They go skiing and drink tea. They catch a football game together. They play badminton for the cameras. And everything appears to be cool.
Until another round of speculation begins that -- wait for it! -- The Tandem Is Feuding!
Medvedev's firing last month of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov got the meme going again. And the punditocracy is back in overdrive.
A good example is Vladimir Frolov's recent column in "The Moscow Times":
Writing in "Svobodnaya pressa," political analyst Vladimir Golyshev points out that "the name 'Putin' mysteriously disappeared from the invitation list to [Moscow Mayor] Sergei Sobyanin's inauguration." He also notes that "the first bold act by Sobyanin's city hall was to issue a permit for an anti-Putin demonstration. For 2 1/2 hours people were able to chant 'Putin must resign!'"
Golyshev also compared Putin to Yegor Ligachev, the perestroika-era hard-liner and conservative foil to Mikhail Gorbachev. He likened filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov's recent conservative manifesto to the infamous 1988 Nina Andreyeva letter, a public broadside against Gorbachev that was orchestrated by Ligachev.
I wonder how long this will continue before Putin and Medvedev will decide to do some more male bonding for the cameras again.
To be sure, there is something to the periodic conflict speculation. Frolov, for example, is correct to focus on "the political courts around each leader," because it is there, and not between Medvedev and Putin themselves, where conflict does indeed exist.
Igor Yurgens, the head of the Institute for Contemporary Development and an adviser to Medvedev, would certainly like to see the backs of Putin and the siloviki. And Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, the informal leader of the siloviki clan, has -- to put it mildly -- little affection for Medvedev.
But for the time being at least, I remain convinced that Putin and Medvedev are on the same page.
And as I have blogged here and here, I think Medvedev's role in this drama is to carry out a tightly controlled modernization of the economy accompanied by some even more tightly controlled tweaks to the political system. (note the Justice Ministry's unexpected registration of Vladimir Milov's opposition movement Democratic Choice this week.)
An admirer of Yury Andropov, Putin has learned the lessons of perestroika well: that unmanaged economic and political reform can easily spin out of the Kremlin's control. But he also understands the lessons of the Brezhnev period -- that a stagnant economy and moribund political system can sink a superpower.
This is the needle Putin is trying to thread.
I think that Plan A at this point is for Medvedev to remain president after 2012 with Putin's blessing -- and protection -- to carry out these tasks. Putin may remain as prime minister, or as I suggested here, become the secretary-general of United Russia. It doesn't really matter, since the big bad siloviki, the guys with the guns and the license to use them, are loyal to him. And Putin will remain Russia's supreme leader -- regardless of his title -- as long as they do.
There will be noise and rumblings as Putin's and Medvedev's respective courts are indeed fierce rivals -- and don't really like each other all that much. And there will be feigned conflict, but it will probably just be pokazukha.
-- Brian Whitmore