Russia's Medvedev Putting Some Distance Between Himself and Putin
Monday, February 9, 2009
MOSCOW -- With a series of careful moves and subtle statements, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has begun to shed his image as the obedient sidekick of his powerful predecessor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, fueling speculation that their partnership could be strained by the nation's worsening economic crisis.
Putin remains the dominant figure, and there has been no sign of serious differences between the two men. But Medvedev's efforts to establish an independent profile have injected a new element of uncertainty at the top of the authoritarian system built by Putin at a time when it is being tested for the first time by a severe recession.
Since taking office eight months ago, Medvedev has generally been regarded as a political lightweight beholden to Putin, who installed him in the presidency after being forced to step down by constitutional term limits. A longtime aide without his own power base, Medvedev presented himself as more interested than Putin in legal reforms, but he pledged continuity and appointed his patron to lead the government as prime minister.
In recent weeks, however, Medvedev has surprised many observers with actions that appear intended to distance himself from Putin and his management of the economy. He has openly criticized the government's response to the crisis, met with the editor of an opposition newspaper, and ordered changes to a bill backed by the security services that would have made it easier to prosecute critics for treason.
An adviser to Medvedev, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said that the president is loyal to Putin and that the two leaders continue to work closely together. But he added that rival teams around them have clashed on various issues, including economic policy. Medvedev's influence remains limited, the adviser acknowledged, but it is growing as he finds ways to assert himself without offending Putin and the old guard.
In a sign of tensions in the relationship, one Russian official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Putin and Medvedev recently decided that a note-taker should keep minutes of their discussions because "misunderstandings" had arisen following past meetings. "It's a very bad sign," the official said, arguing that a rift in the leadership could destabilize the government.
Confusion at the highest levels of the Kremlin may be a factor in the mixed signals that Moscow has been sending about its desire for improved relations with the United States. Both Putin and Medvedev have expressed optimism about the Obama administration, but Russian pressure appears to have been behind Kyrgyzstan's move last week to close a key U.S. air base.
In keeping with protocol, President Obama has spoken by phone only with Medvedev thus far, and the two are expected to hold bilateral talks in April on the sidelines of an economic summit in London, a move that some analysts say could boost Medvedev's profile further.
Kremlin-controlled media outlets have presented an image of unity in the leadership. Last month, for example, state television showed Putin and Medvedev drinking tea together during a ski trip in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
But two publications, the New Times and the Russian edition of Newsweek, have described a split in the Kremlin over the government's suppression of protests in the far eastern city of Vladivostok against new taxes on imported cars. The New Times reported that Putin wanted to fire an official for losing control of the situation but that Medvedev objected and the official kept his job.
Riot police from Moscow were flown across the country to suppress the Dec. 21 demonstration because of concern that local officials who also opposed the new taxes would refuse to do so, officials said.
About a week later, Medvedev expressed mild dissatisfaction with how Putin's cabinet was handling the economic crisis, describing its response as "not ideal." On Jan. 11, he said the government had been too sluggish in tackling the crisis, which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of layoffs and soaring prices.