Vladimir Radyuhin

Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin have so far displayed unity of views on all issues but there are signs that their relationship may not be as smooth as they proclaim.

When Dmitry Medvedev took over as Russia’s President in May and appointed his predecessor and tutor Vladimir Putin Prime Minister, many analysts predicted that their tandem would run into rough waters before the end of the year.

It was argued that either Mr. Medvedev would become a figurehead President or the two leaders would inevitably come into conflict. Mr. Putin was far more popular and influential than Mr. Medvedev whereas the new President has far more constitutional powers.

Neither prediction has proved correct. Mr. Putin still remains in position of power but Russia is no longer centred on his person alone. The past year saw two centres of power emerge in the Kremlin — one headed by the President and the other by the Prime Minister. On the whole, they have managed to work in unison, peacefully splitting responsibilities.

Mr. Medvedev is Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and in charge of foreign policy and overall strategy, including political and legal reforms, whereas Mr. Putin primarily oversees the economy. He also acts as a factor of political stability, balancing different power groups and controlling Parliament through his chairmanship of the dominant party, United Russia. Both leaders said they closely consulted each other on all major issues.

The Medvedev-Putin tandem passed its first test in August, when Georgia launched a large-scale military attack on its pro-Russian breakaway territory of South Ossetia. The Kremlin duo responded without any delay or hesitation, sending the army to destroy Georgia’s war machine. Moscow then moved fast to recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia’s other separatist region, as independent states, ignoring a wave of western criticism.

The rapidly spreading global economic crisis will put the Kremlin tandem to a far more serious test. The crisis has badly hit Russia as oil prices dropped by over 60 per cent in less than three months and the rouble plunged 25 per cent to the dollar, and more so to the euro, depleting the Russian Central Bank’s reserves and pushing up the cost of imports, which account for 50 per cent of the consumer goods market.

Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said 2009 would be the worst year for the Russian economy since World War II, with the budget deficit touching the $70-billion mark.

Danger of blame game

Will the Medvedev-Putin tandem survive the crisis? Analysts have warned of the danger of a blame game between the leaders and their constituencies over the severe social fallout of the crisis as thousands in Russia lose their jobs. Some anti-crisis measures taken by Mr. Putin’s government have proved controversial. The decision to raise import tariffs on used Japanese cars, which provide a source of living to thousands in Russia’s Far East, provoked large-scale protests. Violent suppression of the protests by the riot police sent from Moscow drew a lot of criticism.

Both Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Putin seem to be aware of the high stakes. Speaking at a Cabinet session wrapping up the year’s economic results, they called for unity at the time of crisis. “We may have different points of view on various problems. But at a time of global challenges it is important to maintain the unity of the government,” Mr. Medvedev said. “Otherwise, we will create considerable problems for our national development.” Mr. Putin, in turn, stressed that “team spirit is vital for the implementation of anti-crisis measures. The fact that the two leaders addressed the issue of unity for the first time since creating the dual power arrangement is indicative of the strains the crisis has put on them.

At the same Cabinet meeting, Mr. Medvedev offered his first, if veiled, criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis, describing the anti-crisis programme as “balanced, though not ideal” even as he added that “no programme is ideal.”

Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Putin have so far displayed unity of views on all issues, be it the conflict with Georgia, NATO expansion or the row with Ukraine over gas prices. But there are signs that their relationship may not be as smooth as the two leaders proclaimed. Some of Mr. Medvedev’s initiatives have been thwarted by Putin loyalists.

The State Duma, Lower House of Parliament, dominated by Mr. Putin’s party, watered down a package of measures proposed by Mr. Medvedev and pushed back the date for enforcing some of them by several years. Legislators also refused to support Mr. Medvedev’s proposal to make the government more accountable to Parliament by adding a constitutional provision making it mandatory for the Cabinet to present annual reports to the Duma.

In his first state-of-the-nation address in November, Mr. Medvedev mounted a scathing attack on the bureaucracy, which he said “terrorises” private business, “brings under control the media,” “meddles in the electoral process,” and “puts pressure on the courts.” He declared that Russians were “much readier now” for economic and political freedoms than they were at the start of reforms in 1992, and called for “calm and steady work to build up democratic institutions and not delay this work.”

It was probably the most liberal speech a Russian leader ever made. But within weeks of making it, Mr. Medvedev approved measures critics called patently undemocratic. Last week, he approved a bill that abolishes jury trials for crimes involving terrorism, hostage taking, armed insurrection, sabotage and civil disturbances. The bill was rushed through Parliament by Mr. Putin’s party and Mr. Medvedev signed it even though the Public Chamber, a consultative Kremlin body tasked with scrutinising draft legislation and monitoring federal and regional governments, made a strong appeal to him to reject it.

Contrary to expectations, Mr. Medvedev reappointed as Moscow City Court chairperson Olga Yegorova, known for passing unfair verdicts lobbied by the “siloviki,” Russia’s powerful security establishment. In another setback to Mr. Medvedev, the Supreme Qualification Collegium of Judges refused to suspend Moscow Arbitration Court chairperson Lyudmila Maikova, accused by his allies of corruption. Ms Maikova is also linked to the “siloviki.”

It was only to be expected that Mr. Medvedev would encounter stiff opposition from the corruption-ridden bureaucracy, which stands to lose from greater transparency and democracy. His early reverses show that he still has a long way to go to assert his authority.

The President removed many “siloviki” from the Kremlin and began appointing his loyalists to key positions, particularly in the judicial sphere. He also steps on Mr. Putin’s turf, summoning Cabinet members for meetings, giving them instructions and holding brainstorming sessions with economists on anti-crisis measures. But Mr. Putin is clearly the dominant leader and is in no hurry to step into his shadow.

It would of course be premature to judge Mr. Medvedev’s presidency on the basis of his eight months in office. It took Mr. Putin most of his first four-year term to consolidate power. Mr. Medvedev faces more challenges, as the state machine he plans to reform is far more powerful and consolidated today than it was when Mr. Putin took charge.

Options open

The past year showed that Mr. Putin keeps open the option of returning to presidency when Mr. Medvedev’s four-year term runs out or even earlier.

In the last weeks of 2008, the federal and 83 regional legislatures rushed through constitutional amendments extending the presidential term from four to six years, and Parliament’s term from four to five years. Even though the proposal was put forward by Mr. Medvedev, everybody knows that its real author is Mr. Putin, who first aired this possibility in 2007. Mr. Medvedev’s explanation that a four-year presidency is insufficient for a large country did not sound particularly convincing considering that the Russian Constitution allows two straight four-year terms, and his predecessors served eight years each. The speed at which the amendment cleared the complicated approval procedure raised speculation that Russia could be heading for a snap presidential election as early as 2009 to enable Mr. Putin to return to power for another 12 years.

Whether Mr. Putin will really want to change seats again is anybody’s guess. He is quite comfortable as a back-seat driver, which role gives him some extra benefits such as reduced workload. Kremlin insiders say Mr. Putin sharply cut his office hours after leaving presidency, and his staff sometimes has a hard time catching up with him to get his signature on a document.

It is not clear though whether Mr. Medvedev will be happy to play second fiddle. Reviewing the events of the past year in a recent interview, Mr. Medvedev asserted that he was his own man. “The final responsibility for what happens in the country and for the important decisions taken would rest on my shoulders alone and I would not be able to share this responsibility with anyone,” he said.

This can be taken as a vow to push for further redistribution of power in his tandem with Mr. Putin.