The relationship between Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin has taken a back seat to Russia's current economic and political problems. Both men are being judged by their public quite differently than if there hadn't been such an avalanche of negative events.
The economic downturn appeared to be something Medvedev was more qualified to handle, but his portfolio as president doesn't not require him to be in that role. It is Putin as prime minister who has had to lead the government response in complicated eco-political matters -- often with mixed results. A good example has been his reaction, or non-reaction, to the emergency appeal to the European Union and the United States by the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko.
The pro-western Yushchenko called for help in keeping legitimate democracy alive in his country by countering what he characterized as a "constitutional coup" plotted by his political rivals, the ambitious PM Yulia Tymoshenko and the pro-Russian opposition leader (and former PM) Viktor Yanukovych. Hovering above all this maneuvering is the ever-present threat of destabilization of the Ukrainian pipeline umbilical cord with Russia that is so important to both countries.
At another time one could have expected Putin to jump in as deus ex machina to solve the problem and show his and Russia's friendly importance to their neighbor. Instead Putin so far has stayed clear of the Ukrainian tar pool and concentrated on Russia's domestic scene. Medvedev, no fool himself, also found it more appropriate to focus his attention on the murder of two law enforcement officials in Dagestan.
Vladimir Putin, playing to his Leningrad home region, however, decided to assume the role of the stern father figure (aka old-time Soviet commissar) and react sternly to the shutdown of three industries in the community of Pikalyovo. He stomped into town, called a meeting with the industry owners, brought in the media, and proceeded to "make them an offer they couldn't refuse."
The result was that the good people of Pikalyovo were instantly reemployed, another economic problem was solved, and Vladimir showed once again he was the guy who could get the job done.
Putin's sometimes coarse language and tough guy image played well when he first arranged for his young heir, Dimi, to take over as president. It was accepted that Vlad would be able to run the country with Medvedev fronting the show. But Little Dimi has shown he's not the simple toady he was thought to be.
Dmitry Medvedev has displayed an excellent grasp of world politics, and for that reason has impressed the Russian media with his acceptability on the global scene. Medvedev's softer language and more urbane manner have received high marks from the better-educated segments of the Russian public, who also favor his grasp of the academic aspects of Russia's economy.
The Russian GDP has been down approximately 9.5% in the past twelve months (as opposed to less than half that amount in the European Union overall). No amount of intelligence and good manners, however, makes up for that financial shortfall. The political blame game appears in full play. Differing approaches to solving Russia's economic problems have appeared to cause some dissension between Putin and Medvedev -- fed by rivalry between their economic advisors.
Recently Putin staffers reportedly have placed the blame at Medvedev's door for Russia losing a billion dollar refueling aircraft contract with India to France's Airbus A330MRTT. The PM's aides said that high-level diplomatic connections with India on large-scale defense matters fell squarely into President Medvedev's corner, yet he was too busy with other things to properly follow up. This sort of backbiting has become de rigeur among the competing presidential and prime ministerial staffs.
On the geo-political front involving the former Soviet Union (FSU) countries of Central Asia, Medvedev clearly has sought the lead. Last year Medvedev announced Russia had "privileged interests" in neighboring countries. In the subsequent months it became clear that the strategic and mineral-rich nations of Central Asia were a priority. Kyrgyzstan moved quickly in February to evict the Americans from their base at Manas and Medvedev was credited in Moscow with a behind-the-scenes role.
Just this week Putin has sought to regain the international commerce spotlight from Medvedev by announcing Russia would join the World Trade Organization only as part of a trade bloc with Kazakhstan and Belarus. And so it goes.
The scorecard shows that in spite of his continuing special relation with the security services, Putin appears to have lost a degree of popular political appeal. Dimi stepping aside for Vlad in the future is no longer a given.
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