But this time it feels a bit different, a bit more urgent. This time, presidential elections are less than a year away and everybody senses that the answer to the great riddle of Russian politics is coming very soon.
Medvedev set off the latest frenzy with his interview with China's CCTV, where he gave the strongest indication yet that he plans to seek reelection in 2012. For good measure, he also said it was time to move beyond the authoritarian "state capitalism" model that has been a hallmark of Putin's rule.
Putin then weighed in, saying elections were still nearly a year off and that either he or Medvedev (or perhaps both) could run. Putin also seemed to take a swipe at Medvedev by saying that all the "fuss" over the election is disrupting the work of the government.
And on April 14, some top figures in the ruling United Russia party indicated their preference for Putin to return to the Kremlin.
Here's Yury Shuvalov, deputy secretary of United Russia's presidium, speaking to Gazeta.ru:
This is the consolidated position of all those in the party engaged in politics. But it cannot be called the party's official position. In order to express an official position, we would have to convene a congress of the party. But my colleagues and I consulted and decided to express their views in light of recent statements by Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin].
Another United Russia member, Andrei Isayev, said Shuvalov accurately reflected the views of the party.
Gazeta.ru noted, however, that Shuvalov and Isayev hail from United Russia's conservative wing and it was unclear whether their views reflect that of the party as a whole.
By all appearances this looks like a coordinated counteroffensive by Putin.
But in an interview with the St. Petersburg-based newspaper "Delovoy Peterburg," the uber political strategist Gleb Pavlovsky offered some context to what might be going on.
The tandem was conceived to secure the continuity of Putin's policies, and Medvedev secured them. The tandem worked for three years and did a good job. It fulfilled its role," Pavlovsky said.
"Now a different task, in place of continuity, arises -- the legal normalization of the state. The tandem has already in effect become a political alliance of like-minded thinkers. Putin is no longer a charismatic loner, the personal guarantor of Russia's unity."
Pavlovsky added that Medvedev is trying to replace the idea that Putin is the sole personal guarantor of political stability in Russia and replace it with "a state norm that one can rely upon, a legal norm where the leader is not needed.
But Pavlovsky adds that Medvedev is proceeding very carefully:
The new policy must be based upon these real long-term mass interests rather than on television talk shows and conversations with the country. Which were good, but in the end they are political theater, and now political institutions are needed.
Medvedev is carefully releasing the pressure in the bubble, preserving guarantees for everyone, including the top levels of the bureaucracy that has merged with business. Including in this, of course, are the people who came with Putin. Any election scenario that denies any of the country's social groups the right to a future is dangerous and unacceptable. It will create enemies instead of allies. Everyone who calls for dismantling the system and bringing the bureaucracy to trial creates a nightmare not for the government, but for the peaceful voter. They will provoke a corrupt 'party of war' and affect the interests of millions of ordinary citizens.
As for the tandem, Pavlovsky suggests that it will remain intact after 2012. He dismisses talk that Putin will take a job like head of the International Olympic Committee, as some press reports have suggested. The trick, he argues, is to find a role for Putin in Russian politics:
The political union with Medvedev must be preserved in any case. But in the form of the tandem or in a different one? Alternatives are possible. In any case a political formula guaranteeing the interests of the former Putin majority and the interests of the old political team must be found. Lack of clarity is a factor of distrust. Any candidate for president in the 2012 election must offer the voters a kind of all-Russian insurance policy. The world around is too dangerous to risk the peace in our country.
With his Kremlin connections and history of working for both Putin and Medvedev, Pavlovsky is about as good a barometer as there is for Russian elite opinion. My take away from his comments is that that he expects Medvedev to be president after 2012 (although he doesn't say this directly) and he expects Putin to continue to play a key role in the system (I would argue that he will play the key role.)
As I've written before, the longevity of the tandem beyond 2012 is likely because Putin and Medvedev appeal to different wings of the elite -- the siloviki and the technocratic -- and both are essential to preserving unity.
Moreover, a critical mass of the elite appears to want Putin to continue playing a role. Some want this to make sure that any reforms Medvedev pursues don't endanger the primacy of the existing elite. Others want to make sure the siloviki and the bureaucracy don't undermine and emasculate Medvedev. (The "Putin as Medvedev's Krysha" model.)
The trick, as Pavlovsky notes, is finding a place for Putin in the system where he could plausibly play the role of "national leader."
But as I have noted in the past, as long as Putin continues to enjoy the loyalty of the security services, it doesn't really matter. He could continue as prime minister. If he heads United Russia's party list in December, he could be speaker of the State Duma of general secretary of United Russia.
Whichever it is, the details need to be worked out this year.
-- Brian Whitmore