Dmitri Medvedev, Russia's prime minister and former president, has departed from the official script – as he sometimes dramatically does – to call for the release of three Pussy Riot women who were sentenced last month to two years in a penal colony for committing sacrilege in Moscow's premier Orthodox cathedral.
The women have been in prison since March, and their appeal hearing is set to begin in two weeks. Mr. Medvedev called for the women to be given suspended sentences.
"This well-known group of girls have been in prison quite a long time already, and that is a very serious punishment for everything they did, regardless of the sentence…. Prolonging their prison confinement seems unproductive in this case," he added.
Medvedev's comments came just a few days after President Vladimir Putin compared Pussy Riot performances with "witches' sabbaths" and mused over how obscene their name sounds in English in an interview with the Kremlin-run RT network. Otherwise, Mr. Putin insisted he had nothing to do with the case.
On Tuesday Russian state TV aired a "documentary" film entitled "Provocateurs. Part 2" which claimed the brief "punk prayer" performed by Pussy Riot in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior last February was part of an international conspiracy financed by renegade Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who currently lives in London.
Some experts say Medvedev, who has not shone in his new role as prime minister, may be trying to refurbish his liberal credentials amid Russia's fast polarizing political landscape in hopes that he may have a political future if Putin should be forced to leave the Kremlin early.
"Medvedev can't change anything for Pussy Riot, but he's taking care to position himself as a liberal," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow.
"After all, he's a former president, head of the United Russia party, and if Putin were to go away he could step up. He's taking care with his biography, to show that he can take a stand."
During his four year presidency Medvedev frequently expressed liberal positions, while taking care not to offend Putin. For example, he urged Russian law enforcement to reopen the cases of Anna Politkovskaya and other journalists who had been murdered in the line of work and he took the side of his human rights advisers in the controversial case of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky by admitting that some official crimes had taken place leading to his still unsolved prison death.
Last month the two openly quarreled over which of them took the critical decisions after Georgia attacked the Russian protectorate of South Ossetia in August 2008, triggering a brief war that was won by Russia.
But most experts believe Medvedev is just trying to continue the "good cop, bad cop" routine he practiced with Putin during the four years of "tandem" leadership in which Medvedev was nominally president.
Most experts seem to agree that, despite talking a liberal game, Medvedev changed nothing of significance during his four years in the Kremlin and never once challenged Putin in any significant way.
"The tandem is destroyed now, and Medvedev is trying to find his new place in Putin's hierarchy of power," says Andrei Kolesnikov, opinion editor at the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
"He wants to play a role, but as prime minister he is showing himself to be completely helpless. As when he was president, he appears incapable of taking any key decision without a nod from Putin," he says.
"As for his views on Pussy Riot, it's too little, too late. No one can imagine that the Moscow appeals court will take Medvedev's view into account. It's just a statement entirely without consequences."