Recent articles by Yevgenia Albats and Yulia Latynina encapsulate the polemic.
Writing in "Novoye vremya" (New Times), Albats argues that with his assault on government ministers sitting on corporate boards Medvedev has made his move against his former mentor and the battle is finally on. "No more feeble excuses that it's all about the institutional rivalry within the state bureaucracy between the Kremlin and the government. It all comes down to the president and the premier now," she writes.
Albats also stresses Medvedev's criticism of the procurement practices at Transneft, Gazprom, and Russian Railways, which he described as "banal corruption." Each of these, she notes, is run by a Putin crony:
The message was sent. The message was heard. The country is waiting for Putin's reaction. What will he do? Will he obey the president's order to remove [Deputy Prime Minister Igor] Sechin and Co. from the oil and gas industry? Will he defy the president? And if it is the latter, then what will the president do? Will he make the next step and dissolve the government? Medvedev has to strip his rival of financial and administrative leverage that goes with the premier's job. He has to stop Putin from having tame TV channels extolling him on a daily basis as they have been doing. It is his only chance in the battle for the Kremlin.
Writing in "Yezhednevnyy zhurnal," Latynina sees an entirely different reality. Instead of Medvedev making his move, she sees a lot of empty words with little action to back them up:
The second question. What, specifically, has Medvedev done in the past 3 years? The answer: He made constant promises. Just recently, he promised that state officials would leave the boards of directors of state corporations, and everyone is discussing this liberal wish. And why not discuss it? Medvedev said exactly the same thing three years ago. Shall we discuss how it was fulfilled?
Dismissing Medvedev as "the Twitter president," Latynina goes on to chide him for making promises -- to get to the bottom of things like Sergei Magnitsky's death in prison, the automobile accident involving Lukoil vice president Anatoly Barkov that killed two women, and the attack on journalist Oleg Kashin -- and not delivering:
She goes on to suggest that Medvedev is not all that different from Putin at the end of the day, citing his saber rattling with Japan over the Kurile Islands and his support for a police "reform" that many rights activists argue gives law-enforcement even more arbitrary power. "Medvedev is a part of the Putin power machine in the most direct, corrupt, sense of this word," Latynina writes.
She concludes by comparing Medvedev to...Putin's shoelace:
I have always considered Albats and Latynina to be two of the more astute Kremlin watchers on the scene. And the fact that they have looked at the same information and came to diametrically opposed conclusions is testament to just how opaque and fluid the current dynamic is.
Despite the apparent turbulence, for the time being I am sticking to my working hypothesis that Medvedev and Putin are stuck with each other and that the tandem will endure beyond 2012 -- with Medvedev as president and Putin as the dominant force in Russian politics.
What we have been seeing as of late (and as I blogged earlier in the week, this is not exactly a new phenomenon) is Medvedev becoming, if not a coequal partner in the ruling tandem, at least a less unequivocally subordinate co-ruler.
Putin still has the siloviki and will continue to have them. But Medvedev has won the loyalty of much of the technocratic part of the elite that will be a necessary player in any modernization of the country's economy. He has also won the trust of the West to a degree -- no small matter as Russia seeks investment to fuel its modernization.
But whoever is right about the politics, there is still the not-so-minor matter of what kind of policy Russia is going to pursue after 2012, regardless of who (either individually or collectively) is running the show after 2012.
Here is political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov writing in "RBC Daily":
The next president will inevitably encounter serious problems. Economic problems will be particularly difficult to handle...
Second, the next president will finally have to finally tell society where they want to take Russia in the next 10-15 years.
Third, it will be necessary to do something about the social pessimism which is gradually deteriorating into irritation and bitterness. The public might start longing for a complete reset of the political system before long.
Fourth, the president will have to learn from the Middle East experience and initiate development and installation of bona fide political institutions.
Neither participant in the tandem (much less their teams)
knows answers to these questions at this point.
Have a nice weekend, everybody!
-- Brian Whitmore