Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who showed last week that he is always up for an adventure, is currently touring Russia's remote and rugged far east in a bright yellow Lada Kalina, provided by AvtoVAZ, Russia's largest carmaker.
Along the way, he's made daily headlines by visiting a newly constructed space launch center, inaugurating an oil pipeline to China, and griping to journalists about the poor quality of Russian roads and the high cost of gasoline.
He struck a different note on Monday, using a newspaper interview to defend harsh police tactics against the small anti-Putin opposition led by chess champion Garry Kasparov and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, who plan to stage another of their controversial series of street rallies in defense of free speech on Tuesday.
Experts say Mr. Putin, who arguably remains the country's most powerful leader – even though Russia's Constitution stipulates that a prime minister is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the Kremlin – is almost certainly preparing for a fresh run at the presidency in elections slated for 2012.
"Putin loves to do these things, but the aim here is also to increase his profile and popularity before the decision is made about who will run for the president's job," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. "This will ensure that he remains the key leader in the country, no matter what happens."
Speaking to the Moscow daily Kommersant on Monday, Putin hinted that might like to occupy the Kremlin again. "[Being president] interests me like ... I wanted to say like everyone, but in fact more than everyone else," Putin said. "But I don't want to make a fetish out of it."
However, the top Kremlin post is held by his own hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev, who has lately been signaling that he might want to hold on to it beyond 2012, when a new Constitutional amendment that extends presidential terms from four to six years will kick in.
One such signal came last week after 3,000 environmentalists and their supporters rallied in downtown Moscow to protest the construction of a toll road through the Khimki Forest, a public green zone near Moscow that was removed from its protected status by a Putin decree last year. Mr. Medvedev ordered the project suspended pending a new review and search for possible alternative routes.
In a statement posted on his official website, Putin said he agreed that the final route of the road was open to question, but also insisted that the project is necessary. Environmentalists say that, of the 144 hectares of forest slated for destruction, nearly half the trees have already been chopped down.
Some experts dismiss Medvedev's move, arguing that what appear to be recurring differences between Putin and the president are often just political smoke-and-mirrors, mostly aimed at distracting domestic opponents and blunting international criticism.
"In the Putin-Medvedev tandem, Medvedev played a special role from the beginning, by courting a more liberal constituency, reaching out to a different electorate, making nice gestures," says Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.
Examples include starting up his own LiveJournal blog to reach out to a more youthful audience, tangling with Putin over the direction of Russian democracy in a public meeting, and granting his first-ever presidential interview to the staunchly oppositionist newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
Mr. Petrov says that the Khimki Forest decision is another "good cop" gesture that will likely be rescinded later.
"It's just the same game," he says. "In a couple of months, when they finish the 'review' and decide to go ahead with the project, it is hoped that the controversy will have died down."
Meanwhile, the "bad cop" of the tandem lashed out at the protesters who have held recurring rallies in support of Article 31 of Russia's 1993 Constitution, which guarantees citizens the right to free assembly. Another is slated for Tuesday. The "31" movement has been gaining traction in recent months among frustrated liberals who hope to dramatize what they see as the steady erosion of civic rights in Russia by taking to the streets.
They habitually gather in Moscow's downtown Triumph Square, which features a huge statue of radical Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, because it is associated with Soviet-era unsanctioned public poetry readings and prodemocracy dissident meetings.
Putin told Kommersant that protesters were acting provocatively by insisting on meeting on Triumph Square, for which they are never granted permits, instead of the often remote locations offered to them.
"If you get [permission], you go and march," Putin said. "If you don't, you have no right to. Go without permission, and you will be hit on the head with [police] nightsticks. That's all there is to it."
But former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, who was arrested along with 80 others at another Moscow rally last week, alleges that authorities are openly flouting the law.
"Putin claims to have a law degree, but he must have been a very poor student," he says. "The Constitution stipulates that Russian people have the right to assemble peacefully without any permission. Under the law, we are obliged to inform the authorities of our intentions. The constant use of police force against peaceful and lawful demonstrators is illegal."
Earlier this month, Moscow authorities fenced-off Triumph Square, reportedly due to construction of an underground parking garage. Mr. Nemtsov says it's part of an ongoing campaign to deny protesters access to the deeply symbolic place, but he insists Tuesday's rally will go ahead as planned.