As the political differences between Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev widen into a visible public rift, and each continues to insist on the wish to run for president in polls next year, some Russians are mulling a prospect that sounded like a fantasy just a few weeks ago: What if they faced off against each other in an open and fair election?
It was Mr. Putin himself who kicked off the speculation that's now surging like electricity through Russia's blogosphere. "Neither me nor Dmitry have ruled out that each of us could be a candidate in the race," he said last week in an effort to tamp down discussion about the looming Kremlin choice. "We will proceed from the real situation closer to the elections."
Putin was responding to remarks made by Mr. Medvedev at a conference of the BRICS nations in China. "I do not rule out that I will run for a new term as president," he said. "A decision will be made in the fairly near future, because there is less than a year remaining. It is high time for changes."
For the past three years, the former two-term president Putin and his anointed successor, Medvedev, have run the country in a more-or-less amicable "tandem" – but one in which Putin always seemed to be the senior partner. Both routinely insisted that relations between them were fine, and that in due course they would decide "between themselves" which would run as the establishment candidate for president. In the system of "managed democracy" built by Putin, state backing is crucial to winning elections, and Kremlin critics have found themselves marginalized, even when they are allowed to put their names on the ballot.
Is that a campaign platform?
But over recent weeks, public disagreements within the "tandem" have grown more frequent, and some political forces have begun to coagulate around the potential candidacies of each, complete with think tank studies that read a lot like draft campaign platforms.
"There are a number of voices now, both from liberal and conservative camps, that maintain it would be best to break with [the Putin system] and let the voters decide between them," says Alexei Pushkov, anchor of Post Scriptum, Russia's most popular TV public affairs program.
"If we had two candidates, Putin and Medvedev, with somewhat different political lines, that could create the basis for a genuine two party system in Russia. After all, these are authentic differences within Russian society," Mr. Pushkov says. "Some favor the more traditional approach of Putin, while others are for the more liberal line that Medvedev pushes.... Whoever the next president would be, he would possess a new level of legitimacy. If it were Medvedev, he would be finally free from the bonds of the Putin system and able to chart his own course. If it were Putin, we would know that his victory was based on honest public support."
The idea of weaning Russia from its addiction to autocratic governance has a long history, but attempts have never been successful. The brief multiparty interlude that followed the abdication of the last czar in 1917 was soon swept away by a Bolshevik tide that lasted more than 70 years. Attempts to build a democratic system in the 1990s foundered amid economic chaos and social breakdown.
Putin came to power more than a decade ago vowing to restore the "power vertical," meaning the traditional chain of direct command that extends from the Kremlin down into every corner of Russia.
Though he stepped aside in 2008 to let his longtime aide Medvedev take the top Kremlin job, Putin moved into the prime minister's chair, which enabled him to maintain control over Russia's far flung bureaucracy and the levers of domestic policy. He also accepted leadership of United Russia, the state-backed political behemoth that controls virtually all legislatures in the country – from the State Duma to small municipal councils – and whose membership is so heavily stacked with officials that wags have dubbed it a "trade union for bureaucrats."
Shortly after Medvedev's arrival in the Kremlin, the United Russia-dominated Duma passed a bill amending Russia's 1993 Constitution to extend presidential terms from 4 to 6 years, a change that many speculated was aimed at allowing Putin to return in 2012.
"In the existing system, the choice of candidate for president is not a public matter," says Pavel Salin, an analyst with the independent Center of Political Assessments in Moscow. "The person who controls resources, assets and finances is the most powerful. And that is Putin. He is also supported by the vast, gray bureaucratic machine whose main interest is preserving the status quo. All the strings are in Putin's hands, and I cannot see him running against Medvedev because it would upset the tandem, and neither of them are ready for this."
To many, Putin equals stability
Putin's main claim to popularity is that he imposed stability in Russia after the turbulent decade of the 1990s. That is a theme he honed in a speech Wednesday to Russia's State Duma, the lower house of parliament, in which he enumerated the country's economic successes under his stewardship as prime minister.
"The nation needs decades of stable and calm development without any sharp movements and ill-conceived experiments," Putin said in the 4-hour address. "If the state and the nation are weak, a lack of immunity to outside shocks inevitably become a threat for national sovereignty.... In the modern world, those who are weak will get unambiguous advice from foreign visitors which way to go and what policy course to pursue."
Medvedev has urged a course of "modernization," which would include greater openness to the West, investment in high tech industries and modest political reform. It's not a message that plays well in Russia's vast, conservative hinterland, or among the wealthy oligarchs who make their fortunes extracting and exporting raw materials. But it could gain traction among millions of youthful, educated urbanites who, polls suggest, increasingly yearn for the rule of law and political freedoms that Western middle classes take for granted.
His frequent bursts of liberal rhetoric have stirred many in Russia's beleaguered pro-democracy community, though some have remarked on the huge gap between his words and subsequent actions.
In recent weeks, Medvedev has challenged the Putin system by ordering top officials to resign from management boards of state-owned corporations – a move that will hit leading Putin supporters very hard – and stepped up efforts to reform the corruption-prone national police force.
If Medvedev did decide to challenge Putin in an open election, some speculate that he might decide to do so under the banner of Fair Russia, a social democratic party created by the Kremlin as a loyal counterweight to the still powerful Communist Party, whose leader, Gennady Zyuganov, this week announced his own intent to run for president.
Last weekend, Fair Russia abruptly dropped its longtime leader, Sergei Mironov, and announced that it would not be supporting any presidential candidate nominated by the Putin-led United Russia. That led to rumors that Medvedev, or one of his supporters, might take the party's helm.
"A lot of our members are speculating about this, and it's good because it's stimulating and motivating, even though I think it's unlikely," says Ilya Ponomaryov, a Fair Russia Duma deputy.
"A possible election race between Putin and Medvedev is something to dream about. I'm not sure how it would work in practice, because of the nature of our system. The bureaucracy would go crazy, how would they know who to support? But for the country, I believe it would be very good."