Less than one year ahead of presidential elections, the conflict in Libya has finally laid bare tensions between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his predecessor Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Analysts have long claimed to have detected disputes on issues ranging from the construction of a road through a forest outside Moscow to the investigation into a terror strike on Moscow’s largest airport.
But the supposed differences sometimes seemed so subtle it would require a microscope to see them.
And since Medvedev took over the Kremlin from Putin in 2008 and immediately appointed his mentor, a fellow Saint Petersburger, as prime minister the choreography has usually been needle-precise enough to make the Bolshoi Ballet.
But Putin’s lacerating criticism of the UN resolution that paved the way for military action in Libya as resembling the call for a “medieval crusade” appears to have finally broken Medvedev’s patience.
Hours later, dressed assertively in a bomber-jacket emblazoned with the double-headed eagle of Russia, Medvedev made an unscheduled appearance on state television to denounce the comments as “unacceptable”.
Whereas Putin has slammed the resolution as flawed, Medvedev said it largely made sense. And whereas Medvedev has made improving relations with the United States a key policy plank, Putin said Washington was acting “without logic”.
As if this was not enough, the whole issue has come to a head in the midst of a visit by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates to Russia, with whom Medvedev is due to meet on Tuesday.
This biggest question in Russian politics has for the last months been whether Medvedev stands again for election in the March 2012 polls or steps aside for Putin to return to the Kremlin, a move that might trouble the West.
Both men have said they will decide ahead of the time which of them will stand, an illusion of harmony that may now be shattered after Monday’s drama.
“The election campaign has started,” independent political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told AFP. “The tandem has ceased to exist.”
“Medvedev defined his position, which is with Europe. Putin is keeping to his which is more conservative.”
“Medvedev wants to show that he has his own programme, one different from that of Putin,” he added.
Medvedev’s intervention is a signal that he considers himself a serious candidate for 2012, with his own vision and programme, and will not meekly give way to the Putin juggernaut, analysts said.
Only last week, a think tank set up by Medvedev to advise him on economic policy had urged him to run for a second term in 2012 on a platform of modernising Russia that contrasted him from Putin.
“One year from now, we will not only be choosing between programmes and personalities, but (also) between the start of changes and the end of hopes, between a future and new hard times,” the Institute of Contemporary Development said.
Medvedev has made his flagship policy modernizing Russia’s economy to an innovation-based model to wean it off its dependence on oil and gas exports — a project that his closest aides have made clear will take more than one term.
The conflict is a far cry from the chummy get-togethers shown by state media in past months which have shown the two leaders playing billiards together, sparring on a badminton court or drinking milk over lunch.
“It’s completely clear that the president and prime minister symbolise different parts of the Russian elite, who part company not only on international affairs but on the economy, social and other questions,” said opposition politician Leonid Gozman.
“I think this is an obvious personal conflict,” he told the Interfax news agency.
Mark Urnov, head of the politics faculty at the Higher School of Economics told Interfax that the comments by Medvedev were a sign of a “long-emerging split in the tandem”.
“For Medvedev the West is an ally but for Putin the West is something dangerous,” he added.
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