Moscow's power couple grows apart

Putin and Medvedev are publicly clashing for the first time as the country's top job hangs in the balance

When Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called on the studios of TV Rain last week, he was impressed. Young, innovative, and technologically savvy, the channel's employees represent exactly the type of Russia that Mr Medvedev likes to talk about – but the type of Russia that often does not seem to exist.

The channel was set up a year ago, is broadcast mainly online and is free of the censorship that blights the country's main television stations.

Mr Medvedev visited shortly after a session of Russia's "modernisation committee", a mix of bureaucrats and business leaders tasked with the cornerstone of his presidency – transforming an economy reliant on oil and gas exports into a more innovative one. It is a vision of a new country that he has repeatedly touted since he arrived at the Kremlin in 2008, but critics have suggested that it is an impossible dream while the "managed democracy" system put in place by his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, is still in place. As Mr Medvedev's term in the Kremlin enters its fourth – and final – year, everyone in Russia is consumed with what will happen next. Will Mr Medvedev get a second term and perhaps a chance to turn some of his liberal rhetoric into reality? Or will Mr Putin, who is now Prime Minister, make his long-expected return to the Kremlin?

The assumption was always that it is Mr Putin's decision to make. With two further six-year terms a possibility, if the tough-talking former KGB man decides on a comeback he could be in the Kremlin until 2024. Whatever the Russian constitution says, he remains the most powerful man in the country and has kept up a steady stream of daredevil stunts – from riding a Harley Davidson to shooting a tracking device at whales with a crossbow – to keep himself in the headlines. Mr Medvedev, while also featuring heavily on national TV, fails project the same presence.

But a strange thing has happened. The two politicians have begun to disagree publicly. For months, people on the teams of each man have been fighting and jostling behind the scenes, keen to have their man in the top job. But the two men themselves had stayed out of the bickering.

That has changed. When Mr Putin last month made a comment that Nato action against Libya was reminiscent of the "crusades", Mr Medvedev rebuked him in public and referred to the language as "unacceptable".

With each passing week, there are more signs of discord. Last week, one of the Kremlin's longest-standing advisers, Gleb Pavlovsky, was sacked. He said it was because he had come out in support of Mr Medvedev. "I violated the tandem's silent discipline: say nothing about a candidate until everything is decided," Mr Pavlovsky said. "I thought it was ridiculous and impossible. I could not be silent in this situation, which caused a problem for the Kremlin."

At the end of last week, Mr Medvedev's team made a surprise announcement. In mid-May, he will resurrect a tradition from Mr Putin's presidency, the annual televised press conference. Mr Putin revelled in these showpiece events, when once a year over 1,000 journalists from across Russia gathered in the Kremlin, often armed not with probing questions but with congratulations for Mr Putin and, in one case, even a Valentine's Day card. When Mr Medvedev came to the Kremlin, he discontinued the process. But perhaps in a sign that he wants extra publicity, he has announced that he will host his first such mass question-and-answer session this month.

People with access to the Kremlin say they think that no decision has been taken yet. There is no indication that the situation has become like the mutual hatred between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, but it is clear the two Russians are now jockeying for position.

While Mr Medvedev has always been a close associate of Mr Putin, last week's visit to TV Rain showed there is a difference between the two men. Such a move would be unthinkable for Mr Putin, who has expressed his distaste for investigative journalism many times. Mr Medvedev even sat down for an interview with the channel's journalists, who have previously not shied away from controversial issues. They did not exactly give him a grilling, prompting rumours to surface that the whole channel could be a setup to offer him media support among the liberal élite. The channel's top management denied this, but said it was clear Mr Medvedev was impressed with the channel.

The atmosphere is indeed impressive at the cutting-edge studio, housed in the building of a former chocolate factory. On the roof at TV Rain, journalists and producers mess around on iPads in the spring sunshine, kitted out in hipster outfits and chunky glasses that would not look out of place at party in East London. Someone makes a joke that references Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner who has exposed murky backhanders among Russia's élite.

Hardly anyone had much TV experience before starting at the channel, including the 30-year-old Mr Zygar, previously a foreign reporter for a leading Russian newspaper. "People who have worked for Russian television often have stamps and templates from their time there and are unable to think outside these boundaries," he says. "It's better to hire people who understand what real journalism is and teach them the technical side."

From the rooftop editorial meeting, there is a view to the nearby building that houses Rai, the garish super-club that has thrown some of the most absurdly lavish parties for Moscow's nouveau riche in the last few years. One night in March, the club put on a "Putin party", where young girls stripped off and danced in admiration of the Prime Minister, his rendition of "Blueberry Hill" was played over the loudspeakers and the slogan of the night was: "Only Rai, only Putin, only sex." Most of the guests were members of the pro-government youth groups set up under Mr Putin.

The young journalists at TV Rain and the pro-Putin youth groups present very different visions of what the future of Russia could be like. The one that will be predominant could partly depend on which of Russia's ruling "tandem" will be in the Kremlin for the next six years.

I don't think there is a serious split, but there hasn't yet been a decision, as far as I know," says one source close to the Kremlin. "They need to hurry up and decide, or things could get out of control."

What they said... and what they mean

On freedom and democracy

Medvedev: "Freedom is better than lack of freedom."

Putin: "You have to receive permission from the local authorities [to demonstrate]. If you get it, go and demonstrate. If you don't, you have no right to. If you go anyway, you'll get beaten around the head with a truncheon. And that's it!"

On foreign policy

Putin: "Let them teach their wives to make cabbage soup" – on European criticism of Russia.

Medvedev: "Relations between our countries have been adrift over the past years... There are far more points where we can come closer, where we can work together" – on meeting Barack Obama in 2009

On Nato in Libya

Putin: "To me, it resembles some sort of medieval call to crusade when someone would appeal to someone to go to a certain place and free something there."

Medvedev: "In no way is it acceptable to use expressions that in essence lead to a clash of civilisations, such as crusades and so forth – this is unacceptable."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones
tvSeries 5, Episode 3 review
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence