Neither Vladimir Putin nor Dmitry Medvedev has ruled out running in the presidential election of 2012, and neither has stated clearly he will contest.

With 10 months to go before the next presidential election in Russia, domestic and foreign Kremlin-watchers are agog with speculation on who will be the next President. The choice boils down to two credible candidates: incumbent Dmitry Medvedev and his powerful predecessor and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Opinion polls show that none of the other potential contesters has any chance against either Mr. Medvedev or Mr. Putin, whose support ratings have consistently stayed well above 50 per cent. The two leaders have repeatedly said they would not compete against each other in 2012, and would amicably decide which of them will stand in the election. Neither Mr. Putin nor Mr. Medvedev has ruled out running in 2012, and neither has stated clearly he will contest.

Mr. Putin stepped down as President in 2008 as the Constitution banned him from seeking a third straight term. He promoted Mr. Medvedev as his successor. The first thing the new President did was to appoint Mr. Putin as Prime Minister. The two have since been ruling in tandem. Analysts and think-tanks are split on whether Mr. Medvedev, 46, would seek a second term in 2012 or make room for Mr. Putin, 59, to return to the Kremlin. The only thing experts agree on is that it will be Mr. Putin's decision.

Throughout Mr. Medvedev's presidency, Mr. Putin has kept the reins of power firmly in his hands, while his protégé appeared quite content playing the second fiddle. The situation was accurately summed up in a joke that became popular after Mr. Medvedev was elected President: Mr. Putin gives his protégé a car without a steering wheel. “But where is the wheel?” asks Mr. Medvedev. “Don't worry,” answers Mr. Putin. “I'll do the driving.”

The joke still rings true — three years later. Mr. Medvedev has done precious little to assert his hold on power. Even though the Constitution gives him sweeping powers to sack any Minister — or even the Prime Minister — without as much as explaining his reasons, he has hardly made any key appointments on his own. Even his own staff in the Kremlin consist mostly of Mr. Putin's appointees.

Mr. Medvedev has cast himself as different from his senior partner, more liberal and forward looking. He has called for combating rampant corruption and modernising Russia's political and economic system but he has been slow in delivering on his promises. Cynics say that the only reforms Mr. Medvedev has seen through in the past three years is reducing the number of Russia's time zones from 11 to nine and cancelling the seasonal switch to daylight, saving time.

Mr. Medvedev's handling of the foreign policy has admittedly been a success. He presided over the military thrashing of Georgia when it attacked the breakaway South Ossetia in 2008, signed a milestone arms pact with U.S. President Barack Obama as part of a “reset” between the two countries, and turned around the soured relations with Russia's key ex-Soviet neighbour, Ukraine. But then Mr. Putin's hand was prominent in all these achievements. Alleged cracks in the relationship between Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev over domestic and foreign policies that have been played up by the media appear to be a deliberate tactic by the tandem to appeal to different audiences inside and outside the country and to show that Mr. Medvedev is not Mr. Putin's clone.

As the March 2012 elections draw nearer, Mr. Medvedev has sought to raise his profile as an independent and no-nonsense leader. He has ordered top members of Mr. Putin's Cabinet to quit from the boards of state-controlled companies in favour of independent directors. He has also stepped up criticism of the government for serious lapses and failures. Addressing his first big news conference last week, Mr. Medvedev said while he and Mr. Putin shared strategic goals they differed on “tactical” issues, with Mr. Medvedev favouring faster modernisation reforms.

However, Mr. Medvedev's leadership has lacked the bite. The removal of Ministers from state company boards proved symbolic as the same Ministers were allowed to choose their replacements. Mr. Medvedev's repeated censure of the government was not followed up by any action either.

Asked at last week's press conference why he had not touched any member of Mr. Putin's government despite public outcries of their failure, Mr. Medvedev argued, rather unconvincingly, that it would be wrong to single out officials for punishment over problems in their agencies even as the government overall performed well as a team. “Medvedev is a lightweight President under a heavyweight Prime Minister,” said political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky.

Mr. Medvedev's recent activism appears to be less of an attempt to emerge from Mr. Putin's shadow. It is more of an effort to prove that he has leadership qualities. Here lies the real problem: after three years at the helm, he is yet to prove he can lead Russia on his own.

Lack of political ambition has made Mr. Medvedev the target of jokes in the Russian political comity. One such joke runs as follows: “Everybody knows that the Kremlin is split into two camps — supporters of Putin and Medvedev. What nobody knows is which camp Medvedev will join.”

Even though Mr. Medvedev has not made any attempt to assert his grip on power, Mr. Putin is not leaving anything to chance. Earlier this month, he launched a new political movement, People's Front, that united labour unions, youth and veteran groups around his ruling party, United Russia. The move allows Mr. Putin to kill two birds with one stone. It should help United Russia, which has been losing electoral support, to retain a two-thirds constitutional majority in the State Duma, the lower house, in the election due in December. The People's Front conveniently shifts the electoral focus from United Russia, discredited as the party of corrupt bureaucracy, to Mr. Putin whose popularity has stayed high.

The new movement also deprives Mr. Medvedev of an independent political base from which to run. Not that Mr. Medvedev seems to mind. He has made it clear he is prepared to wait for the blessing of his senior partner. If he decides to run for re-election, Mr. Medvedev said at last week's press conference, he wants to be supported “by the same political forces” as in 2008, that is, by Mr. Putin's United Russia and its allies. “Medvedev has demonstrated that he would like to run again but will wait for Putin to endorse his bid,” said independent analyst Dmitry Oreshkin.

While pre-election manoeuvring is well under way, neither Mr. Putin nor Mr. Medvedev has indicated which of them will contest. Mr. Putin appears to follow the same tactics that he did three years ago, when he waited until after the parliamentary election in December 2007 to declare support for Mr. Medvedev to succeed him.

Meanwhile, uncertainty has unnerved the bureaucracy, which is anxious to bid on a winning horse. However, the Putin-Medvedev tandem has firmly put down any attempts by officials and politicians to embrace one side or the other. When Mr. Putin's protégé Sergei Mironov, Speaker of the Federation Council, upper house of the Russian Parliament, pledged loyalty to Mr. Medvedev, he was swiftly stripped of his post. Mr. Medvedev, in turn, sacked political technologist Gleb Pavlovsky, a long-time Kremlin consultant, after he publicly stated his opposition to Mr. Putin's return to the Kremlin and supported Mr. Medvedev. A couple of MPs were also punished for backing either of them for President.

The duumvirate's tactics of delaying the moment when they announce the Kremlin's choice of presidential candidate makes sense in the Russian political system, because nominating one member will make the other a lame duck way before the election day.

Asked for the umpteenth time last month if he or Mr. Medvedev would run in 2012, Mr. Putin said that naming the Kremlin candidate too early would send “the wrong signal” to the government for it would just stop working in anticipation of change.

In any case, Mr. Putin has complete control of the steering wheel in the car he handed over to Mr. Medvedev three years ago. He has quite a choice to pick from. He can return to presidency and appoint a Prime Minister of his choice; he can let Mr. Medvedev stay on as President for a second term and keep the post of Prime Minister for himself; or he can even step down as Prime Minister but retain his lock on power through the ruling party that is likely to win a supermajority in the next Parliament.

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