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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.

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"Medvedev has no resources and no team to lead; 85 percent of all key posts are held by Putin's people. Medvedev's a general with no army," she says. "The plenary powers of the leaders have been distributed without any reference to the Constitution. Medvedev might chair sessions of the Security Council, but Putin actually controls the siloviki," meaning the military and security services.

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In a burst of assertive activity recently, Medvedev has reached out to Russia's liberals, who were squeezed out of parliament, virtually banned from mainstream media, and shoved to society's margins under Putin.

In April, Medvedev gave a major interview to the Kremlin's longtime nemesis in journalism, the crusading weekly Novaya Gazeta. He introduced a presidential blog and ordered experts to draw up revisions to the Putin-era law on nongovernmental organizations, which civic leaders have decried as a straitjacket on political activity. He also met with leaders of small parties unable to win representation in the Duma in recent elections, and pledged to ease Putin-era restrictions.

Why Putin is throwing pens on national TV

Critics deride these moves as symbolic, but some say they may be an attempt to consolidate support as Medvedev prepares to assert himself as Russia's legitimate leader.

"Putin still believes that he is the No. 1 person in the country, but the problem is that Medvedev is beginning to think much the same of himself," Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group think tank in Moscow, told Ekho Moskvi radio recently. "Putin is more and more obviously taking up a tough, authoritarian position, as if he knows he is being pushed from power and is showing that he will mount fierce resistance."

Earlier this month, Putin rushed to the scene of a workers' strike in western Russia, where he angrily threw a pen at a wealthy tycoon – on national TV – and ordered all the workers' demands to be met. In another odd piece of political theater, Putin angrily upbraided the entire cabinet in a televised July government meeting.

Experts say the truth will probably not be revealed before presidential elections in 2012. Late last year, Medvedev pushed through controversial amendments to Russia's Constitution that extend presidential terms to six years.

"Of course this division of power cannot work as an institution in Russia; this is just a unique situation," says Alexei Push­kov, a member of the Kremlin's Council on Human Rights. "We'll know what's really going on when we see which of them will be running for president next time. Then it will totally become clear," he says.