Russian elites are taking sides as public opinion becomes increasingly polarised between support for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, writes Denis Maksimov, a public affairs consultant and an expert on EU-Russia relations, in an exclusive commentary for EURACTIV.
The following commentary was sent exclusively to EURACTIV by Denis Maksimov.
"What in 2007 was barely noticeable has now come well under the spotlight: Medvedev is not an extension of 'Tzar' Putin anymore. As elites take sides, public opinion in Russia is becoming increasingly polarised.
Medvedev lacks charisma and loses to Putin when it comes to appealing to the majority of Russia's population. Putin succeeded in establishing himself as an 'iron public leader' by pushing the button of Stalinist relics in the Russian mentality and focusing on the electorate living outside major urban centres.
While Medvedev draws his support mainly from the upper middle class, comprising what is left of the 'intelligentsia' and the liberal-oriented population, Putin is the only candidate to appeal to the so-called 'siloviki' group (i.e. the Russian army, the special services, the public security services and the prosecution service), and finds his support mostly in the regional grassroots. Putin's electoral base is therefore much bigger in number.
But as the Medvedev-Putin cooperation, in spite of everything, seems to remain quite stable, controversy is growing among the entourages of the 'political tandem'.
Liberals are using their weapons in 'the apparatus struggle' they are leading against the 'siloviki' by publishing dramatic forecasts about Russia's political, economic and social future in the event that Putin comes back into office.
The arguments they are using when referring to a prospective return to office of Putin are taking on increasingly apocalyptic tones (see the Institute for Contemporary Development's report 'Attaining the Future: Strategy 2012'). Liberals are trying to reach public support among the reflective part of Russian society.
The 'Siloviki' group draws their members from within artificially created massive youth movements such as 'Nashi' ('Ours') and, on a general line, among the lower classes, who gain their support basis through TV rather than Internet.
The 'Siloviki' are using any opportunity to point to Medvedev's lack of strong leadership skills, especially when it comes to security issues, national disasters and international crises.
Medvedev and Putin's different stances on NATO's operation in Libya were quite striking: while Medvedev supported the UN resolution, Putin publicly announced his opposition to such interference in third countries' internal political processes.
Different stage, same story: in internal affairs, Putin does everything it takes in order to save his sacred cow, i.e. the country's stability and unity, whereas Medvedev, as it seems, prefers to come to compromises with the opposition forces.
It is a clear message to their potential supporters, who quite obviously share opposite visions about Russia's future. Putin and Medvedev, thus, quite clearly have different approaches to leadership and different loyal circles in the establishment. It seems, ultimately, that the strategic vision of a 'leading duo' (or so-called 'tandem') is splitting in two.
Medvedev's mantras, such as his bottom-top approach to modernising the country, attracting foreign investors to Russia and adopting a liberal approach towards the opposition, as well as those in the fields of communications and foreign policy, all go against Putin's views on what Russia actually needs: preservation of the status quo, stability, territorial integrity, security and – most importantly – military power.
P.S. Last week, former chief political strategist Gleb Pavlovsky, a prominent contributor to Putin's presidential campaigns and a loyal designer of Russia's political process at regional level, was banned from the president's administration for 'violation of professional ethics'. The event happened right after a series of his opinions were published by several media, where he was quoted mentioning that Medvedev's candidacy for the presidency would fall into a 'basic scenario' if, as he put it 'no extreme events would occur'.
This 'basic scenario' can still be easily challenged, in the event that the entourage behind the 'tandem' still holds some surprises."