MOSCOW (Reuters) – By contradicting Vladimir Putin in public less than a year before Russia’s presidential election Dmitry Medvedev may have taken the biggest gamble of his career.
President Medvedev appeared to challenge Prime Minister Putin’s dominance last week when he said his mentor’s criticism of a UN move on Libya was “unacceptable”, raising the prospect of a struggle for the top job ahead of the March 2012 election.
Whether a masterstroke of Kremlin artifice or a desperate bid to preserve a semblance of authority, Medvedev broke a decade-long taboo against official criticism of Putin and risked angering the clans which view Putin as paramount leader.
“This was the first time that Medvedev put his head so far above the parapet and so in that sense it was the biggest risk of his presidency. I doubt Putin appreciated it,” said Pavel Baev, a professor at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo.
“Medvedev was trying to pull more of the blanket over himself but he is still naked. And Putin feels that he owns the whole blanket,” said Baev. “I would not call this a battle yet, but it could become one.”
It will be unclear if Medvedev’s gamble has paid off until later this year when he and Putin — who was president for the then term limit of eight consecutive years to 2008 — say they will decide which of them will run for a six-year term in March.
What is clear is that Medvedev and his advisers are either confident enough or desperate enough to use some of the darker arts of Kremlin political theatre to push Medvedev out from the long shadow cast by his mentor.
When Putin assailed the UN Security Council resolution authorising military action in Libya as resembling “medieval calls for crusades”, he was expressing much more than his personal opinion.
Speaking to workers at a missile factory on March 21, Putin implied that Medvedev had been too soft on the West over Libya and had made a mistake by not vetoing the resolution, a view that echoes grumbling by some senior Russian conservatives. The Kremlin’s reaction was unusually audacious.
Dressed in a leather bomber jacket emblazoned with a golden double-headed eagle and the title “Supreme Commander in Chief of the Russian Armed Forces”, Medvedev, formally the head of state, said the use of terms such as “crusades” was unacceptable.
But Putin’s unique ability to arbitrate between the competing factions within the Russian elite means that though Medvedev may not agree with Putin’s views on Libya, the Kremlin chief needs the prime minister’s agreement to run in 2012.
“Putin remains the senior comrade and wants to remain Comrade Number 1, no matter whether he is president or prime minister,” said one powerful Russian businessman, who played down the prospect of an open struggle for power.
The United States has sought to gain Medvedev’s support on issues ranging from Iran to Libya. But senior US diplomats also cast Putin as Russia’s “alpha-dog” ruler and said Medvedev “plays Robin to Putin’s Batman”, according to leaked cables.
Russian politics is usually so choreographed that some investment banks and analysts said the rift over Libya was part of an elaborate intrigue to keep the world guessing on who will rule the Kremlin, or to hedge Moscow’s Libyan diplomacy. “It is difficult to understand whether it is a game or a struggle: I am inclined to believe it is a game,” said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a leading expert on the Russian elite.
“The producers of this process are trying to create the illusion that the scales are coming down first on the side of Medvedev and then on the side of Putin and then back again on Medvedev’s side,” she said.
But the speed with which Putin sought to play down any talk of a division, while Medvedev sought to increase his criticism of Western intervention in Libya, supported those who argue that the sharp public rebuke had been no show.
A senior Kremlin source denied, however, that there was any crack in the tandem and said that Russia’s foreign policy is the domain of the president, irrespective of Putin’s personal views.
“The talk about another rift in the ruling tandem is nothing more than make believe,” said the source, dismissing such speculation as “conspirology”.
“It is natural that Russia’s position on Libya was voiced by the president,” the source said. “And he would do that regardless of whether Putin made a statement or not.”
Medvedev is unlikely to have such a luxury when he has to consult with Putin on who should run for president in 2012.