The two heavyweights of Russian leadership have a big problem. There is still nearly a year to go before their presidential election next March and Russia can not afford what could turn out to be a less than gentlemanly contest.
Maneuvering has already begun and it's quite a bit more serious than the usual first round dance. Some body blows were already delivered this month by Medvedev. Orders went out from the Kremlin that all cabinet ministers must resign from Russian state companies. It seems an obvious potential conflict of interest in a supposed free economy to have men like the deputy prime minister, finance minister and transport minister, respectively, as chairman of the dominant oil group, chairman of the state bank and state airline. Supposedly an anti-oligarch governmental device, in practice it had a reverse effect. President Medvedev's actions weren't called anti-corruption measures, but that's exactly what they were.
The sweeping order including these several ministers appears to have been particularly targeted at Deputy P.M. Igor Sechin, perhaps now Vladimir Putin's closest ally in government. There is no way Prime Minister Putin could mistake this action as anything but a personal attack and the first stages of what looks to be a lengthy election battle.
The expected riposte by Putin included nationally broadcast themes of popular appeal -- healthcare and education. In the best Chicago tradition Putin also announced 8-10% pension increases to be added on top of inflation adjustments. That guaranteed vote-getter was countered by a Kremlin announcement that President Dmitri Medvedev already had personally directed that such steps be taken.
Putin also raised the volatility of his rhetoric by admonishing the public not to be taken in by "foreign powers" attempting to diminish Russia's importance in world affairs. This was seen as a very purposeful retort to Medvedev's own direct attack on Putin for referring to NATO's participation in the Libyan conflict as a "crusade." That Putin would appear to link any disagreement with his "crusade" characterization as being tied to "foreign power" influences gives a hint of how hurt he was at Medvedev's speedy dubbing of his former boss's remarks as "unacceptable."
While both principals seem to want to avoid a too early announcement of running for the presidential seat, it would appear that neither man is holding back in setting the scene for a wide open contest. At the same time, however, it is generally agreed that both Putin and Medvedev want to wait until the other makes a definitive move. From a Russian cultural standpoint, the "first man in" seems overly eager and unnecessarily diminishing of the one who is second to the starting line. At least that's one of the explanations offered.
The Financial Times remarked on this surprisingly contradictory situation by quoting a "former high-ranking Kremlin official" as saying, "If anyone tells you they know what's going on, they are lying." Of course that view hasn't kept the local pundits or foreign press from speculating. Perhaps the most logical assessment is that neither Putin nor Medvedev has figured out how not to be a loser. Medvedev's statement this week that he would like to go into teaching after he leaves political life was a back-handed way of saying he really doesn't need high office -- unlike Putin.
In an odd way the manner in which each principal candidate chooses to run for the presidential job may determine whether he gets it. Appearing over-eager will annoy the voting public as much as casual indifference or any tendency toward over-confidence. Then there is the problem that Putin and Medvedev have been close associates for years; thus making the entire matter more personal than political.
Until last year no one seriously questioned the assumption that if Vladimir Putin wanted to be president again in 2012, his one-time aide seamlessly would move back to the prime minister slot. It had been agreed within Putin's inner circle that young Dmitri Medvedev was the closest that anyone had come to being the nachalnik's friend and confidant. Something happened after Dmitri became president.
Some say the old closeness between the two men initially fractured over the Russian invasion of Georgia that occurred only several months after Medvedev became president. It has been suggested that Putin had proceeded along with his defense minister without agreement from the new president. This act spurred Dimi into legally emphasizing his superior position on future national decisions. The student had refused to accept the dominance of the mentor. And so it has evolved in a usually low key but definitive manner till today.
In Moscow there is no current betting line on who is the favorite in the race to hold the presidential reins starting a year from now. Preferential polling is low for both men. One thing is clear, however: Little Dimi is no longer just Vlad's dutiful subordinate. From here on Russia's political scene will roil -- but will be just as obscure as always.
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