By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.
"Many things have been implemented unjustifiably slowly," he said at a meeting with business leaders, complaining that only 30 percent of the measures announced by the government in October had been implemented. A Putin spokesman responded that the government was "paying much attention" to the criticism.
"We maintain good and friendly relations, but this does not mean that the president should turn a blind eye to the existing problems," Medvedev said in a televised interview last week of his relationship with Putin. "Therefore, during my meetings with the government, with ministers, I draw their attention to the existing deficiencies, which is absolutely normal."
Medvedev's remarks had the effect of highlighting the prime minister's traditional responsibility for the economy even as the Kremlin braces for a surge in public anger caused by the nation's worst recession in a decade and the end of the long oil boom that has sustained Putin's rule.
Some analysts said Medvedev has signaled to the Russian elite that the government's response to the crisis is now fair game for criticism and positioned Putin as a potential scapegoat while presenting himself as a possible alternative leader.
"He's trying to preserve his own image because he feels Putin's will suffer in the coming months," said Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst with the Moscow-based Mercator research group. "And this won't be the last step. No one knows how far it will go."
In late January, Medvedev ordered that a treason bill submitted by Putin's cabinet be withdrawn and reworked. Human rights activists had denounced the bill as a throwback to Stalinist times, saying it was so loosely worded that it would have allowed police to charge any government critic as a traitor and anyone who worked with a foreign organization as a spy.
The decision to redraft the bill was disclosed by Vladislav Surkov, an influential political aide who had served Putin but, at least on paper, now reports to Medvedev. Surkov, who has long argued that Russia is building what he calls a "sovereign democracy," recently persuaded one of the country's main democratic opposition parties to transform itself into a pro-Kremlin party representing those who favor liberalization.
Leonid Gozman, one of the leaders of the new party, Right Cause, said he considered the effort an attempt by Medvedev to build a base of support. But he said he saw no serious differences between Medvedev's and Putin's policies.
"They do the same things, they say the same words," he said.
Two days after ordering the treason bill withdrawn, though, Medvedev set himself apart again by meeting with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the editor of his independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, to express condolences over the brazen killings of a student reporter and a prominent human rights lawyer.
The gesture stood in sharp contrast to the Kremlin's dismissive response to the 2006 slaying of another Novaya Gazeta journalist, the investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, whose work Putin disparaged at the time as "extremely insignificant."
In the hour-long session with Gorbachev and the editor, Medvedev emphasized the value of dissenting voices in the media, endorsed the establishment of a research center to remember the victims of Stalin's purges, and suggested that economic crimes be punished with fines instead of prison terms.
By comparison, Putin has derided opposition journalists as enemies of the state, approved a teaching guide describing Stalin as an "effective manager," and used financial crimes to jail wealthy tycoons who cross him.
"I felt his words were sincere," Dmitry Muratov, the Novaya Gazeta editor, said after the session with Medvedev, adding that the president told him he was free to describe their conversation in any forum and in any way he wished.
Yet the circumstances of the meeting also illustrated Medvedev's limits. It was scheduled at the last minute and took place while Putin was out of the country, a full 10 days after the killings.
State-controlled television made no mention of it, and even the president's own Web site refrained from saying what it was about.