Who is really running Russia?
President Medvedev is likened to a general without an army, with most top posts held by Putin's people. But there are signs he's pushing back.
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
He brushed it off, noting that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin formerly held the country's top post – which he did, before paving the way for protégé Dmitry Medvedev's election in March last year.
If Putin's title trips up a world leader here and there, pinpointing his exact role confounds nearly everyone.
Amid the worst economic bad news in over a decade, the question of just how Russia is being led – and where – has become the subject of heated debate among the country's political class.
Some experts say it's a stage-managed Kremlin theater production, a "good cop, bad cop" act designed to keep the opposition off-guard and the public guessing.
Others suggest that President Medvedev, a savvy lawyer fond of Led Zeppelin, may be breaking away from the tutelage of his predecessor and challenging the harsher aspects of the Putin era.
A May poll by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that 19 percent of Russians believe that Medvedev "pursues an independent policy," while 68 percent think he acts entirely "under the control of Putin and [his] entourage."
That street wisdom reflects the past thousand years of Russian history, in which the country has always been ruled by a single strong leader. Rare moments of divided authority have usually been times of threatened civil war, most recently in 1993 when gridlock between President Boris Yeltsin and his elected parliament culminated in gunfire and the subsequent restoration of near-total Kremlin power.
Hence the widespread skepticism last year when Medvedev was vaulted into the Kremlin in a controlled election and Putin moved offices but kept the spotlight he had previously enjoyed.
'Medvedev is a general with no army'
Under Russia's 1993 Constitution, the prime minister is an appointed technocrat who serves at the president's pleasure. In the past, most have toiled in the Kremlin's shadow. But Putin's daily activities have been covered by Russian state TV as fully as Medvedev's. At times of emergency – such as the recent war with neighboring Georgia – Putin has taken center stage.
Both men have repeatedly insisted that their "tandem" is working well. So far, events have borne out that claim.
Olga Kryshtanovskaya, one of Russia's top experts on its political elite, says that if one ignores the terms of Russia's Constitution and looks at who actually holds the levers of power, the apparently peaceful relationship makes sense.