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

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The Independent Online

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."