In a speech at a United Russia regional conference in Khabarovsk this week, the prime minister said the ruling party operated in "a competitive political environment" and constantly faced "criticism from our opponents."
Putin's remarks contrasted sharply with President Dmitry Medvedev's recent comments in his video blog, claiming that since United Russia "has no chance of losing anywhere at anytime" it risks "becoming bronzed and degraded -- like any living organism that does not move."
Putin's performance in Khabarovsk came on the heels of his widely watched appearance on CNN's "Larry King Show" last week. And with both coming in the wake of Medvedev's lackluster state-of-the-nation address, the pundits are playing up the conflict in the tandem meme:
Here's political scientist Rostislav Turovsky in comments published in "Vedomosti" today:
Putin, he argues, is trying to shore up one-party rule and playing to his United Russia base. Medvedev, whose base is with the technocratic elite and liberal intelligentsia, is alternatively seeking to create a more competitive multi-party system:
"Vedomosti" also quoted an unidentified official "close to the upper echelons of United Russia" as saying that "It is clear after all that there will be no pro-Medvedev party now. Speaking at the regional conference in Khabarovsk, the premier reminded the president that United Russia was his... Even though he kept refusing to say whether or not he intended to be on the ticket in 2011."
An editorial in gazeta.ru on December 3, before Putin's speech in Khabarovsk, accused the premier of "putting the brakes on the country" by preventing Medvedev from reforming the political system:
The distribution of roles in the tandem was set long ago and has gone almost unchanged. Medvedev expresses pious wishes, talks about projects, and sometimes makes rather sharp statements...But when the matter comes to decisions, the doors are tightly closed and Putin takes the podium, after which the brakes are put on any undertakings or they are simply stifled.
I guess it's easy to find conflict between Putin and Medvedev if you look hard enough. But as I have noted in several recent posts, I remain unconvinced that what we are seeing is not a struggle for power, but rather a carefully orchestrated dance to cement the tandem's dominance beyond 2012.
United Russia is indeed Putin's party and, with its stranglehold over the State Duma, regional legislatures, and the bureaucracy, will be his power base. It will be the vehicle by which he will remain Russia's de facto ruler and national leader. He'll set broad policy goals, keep the elite in check, and take off his shirt now and then to wrestle with the occasional wild animal for the cameras.
Medvedev will likely remain president and carry out limited political and economic reforms under Putin's watchful eye, and with his protection. It's a formula that is working politically and - despite the elite's current jitters about what happens in 2012 -- has proven to be remarkably stable.
A question on my mind now is whether Putin will remain prime minister after 2012, or whether he will try to rule from the perch of United Russia leader -- like a new model Soviet General Secretary. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have long thought that this has a certain logic to it, and Putin seemed to be laying the groundwork for such a maneuver.
Back in April, for example, there was a fair amount of media chatter that Putin was preparing to form a special structure inside -- or more accurately a superstructure that lords over -- United Russia, answerable to him and him alone, that would give him effective control of the party.
Gleb Pavlovsky, president of the Effective Policy Foundation and one of the most reliable barometers of elite trends, has advocated such a move, saying that Putin would not be a "symbolic leader of the United Russia party," but rather "its real chairman, controller, and actual boss."
This is all tea-leaf reading, of course. But if this is really in the cards, we'll probably see some movement fairly soon. With elections to the State Duma a year away in December 2011, and the presidential election coming three months later in March 2012, the clock is ticking.
-- Brian Whitmore