Whispers of a split between Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his handpicked successor, President Dmitri Medvedev, have grown louder over the past few weeks. The economic crisis is putting pressure on the ruling duo to show they're on top of things. It may also be exacerbating their differences.
The latest and strongest signal of potential trouble, according to Kremlin watchers, was the Kremlin's February announcement that it was establishing an advisory group of professional managers to help the government handle the economic crisis. Observers believe Medvedev will use the pool of loyal bureaucrats to fill government positions abandoned by Putin's men, widely blamed for the economic policies that led to the downturn. "Medvedev is building his own power base, up to a certain point," says Alexander Khramchikhin, a senior researcher at the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow. (See pictures of Putin.)
In a speech to 100 new advisers, Medvedev said the "reserve" pool of managers was created because "the appearance of new people in appropriate positions in our country is going very slowly." Dubbed the Golden 100, the group will eventually grow into a 1,000-strong collection of leading figures from the government, plus the science, education and business sectors. The first 100 include CEOs from leading Russian banks, retail firms, transport businesses and information-technology companies.
But a close examination of those chosen suggests that Putin's influence is far from waning. The appointment of Andrei Turchak, 33, who was named governor of Pskov region in mid-February, has aroused claims of nepotism from critics, because Turchak's father is said to be a good friend of Putin's. (Turchak got his start as head of the youth wing of United Russia, which happens to be Putin's party.) In fact, nearly two-thirds of the first 100 already work in the country's federal and regional bureaucracies or have senior posts in state-owned companies. Because of this, says Khramchikhin, "it is not understood how much independence these people will have from Putin."
Andrei Volkov, one of the 100 appointees and dean of Skolkovo, a new Moscow business school whose board is chaired by Medvedev, says talk of a split is nonsense. "My understanding is that that is an absolutely irrelevant point of view," he says. The reserve "will operate like a team" and have a "mixture of people, liberal and conservative. My only thought is that I hope we can help Russia during the crisis."
Nikolay Petrov, a scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, believes those seeing a split are missing the fact that the government has to appeal simultaneously to different groups. "The names on this list are just signals. Some of the names will signal to conservatives that Medvedev is conservative, while some names will convey that he is liberal. The presidential reserve is decorative."
So, what else is fueling the gossip? Russian daily Vremya Novostei this week reported that Medvedev had "criticized [Putin's] Cabinet for a certain slowness in supporting the real sector of the economy." Putin, the paper wrote, "immediately responded by criticizing [Medvedev]."
Adding to the speculation is the fact that Putin and Medvedev's supporters are "almost in open conflict," says Petrov. "Medvedev's people are pretty openly criticizing Vladislav Surkov" — the deputy chief of staff in Medvedev's Kremlin who is a Putin loyalist.
Perhaps more significantly, Medvedev has been taking small but symbolic steps away from Putin's more authoritarian style of rule recently. Speaking with regional lawmakers on Friday, Medvedev said open discussion of anticrisis measures was "permissible and even necessary." On Sunday, protesters held a sanctioned, peaceful march in Vladivostok — the same city where they had been beaten and arrested at a similar demonstration months earlier. Also on Sunday, Medvedev said unemployment actually stood at 6 million instead of the official figure of 2 million during a now weekly television appearance addressing the crisis. (It's worth noting that Medvedev's talks are still not nearly as popular as Putin's were.)
"Maybe there is a small break between Putin and Medvedev, but it is slight," says Khramchikhin. "Regarding a new openness, it may be accepted — but only if Medvedev begins a fight with Putin ... will [it] have a purpose."