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The Tandem Is Feuding -- Oh My!

A woman walks by a panel made of cardboard boxes, displaying President Dmitry Medvedev (left) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Rostov na Donu, 21Oct2010
A woman walks by a panel made of cardboard boxes, displaying President Dmitry Medvedev (left) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Rostov na Donu, 21Oct2010
Every few months or so the meme emerges. Headlines scream: "The tandem is feuding!" Speculation abounds about whether Dmitry Medvedev or Vladimir Putin are competing to be the establishment candidate for president in 2012. Pundits predict a return to the vicious political clan warfare that marked the 1990s.

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":

The continuing uncertainty about whether President Dmitry Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will run for president in 2012 is becoming a source of political instability.The mounting tensions between the political courts around each leader are threatening to upend the political calm in the nation and plunge Russia into a clannish warfare rivaling the late 1990s. The political courts are already waging media wars positioning themselves for a showdown in a few months. Medvedev's court is on the offensive and is trying to box the president into a decision even before he sorts this out with Putin.

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

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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