Call it the new Kremlinology. During the Cold War, policymakers in the West analyzed and dissected the slightest news out of Moscow in hopes of gaining insight into the labyrinthine Soviet political machine. Today, the obsession preoccupying Russia hands in Washington and European capitals is strikingly similar: parsing the peculiar balance of power that has developed between Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his handpicked protege, President Dmitry Medvedev.
Russia's "tandemocracy" has defied easy classification by outsiders ever since Mr. Putin ceded the presidency to Mr. Medvedev back in 2008. Mr. Putin did not simply stay in office, shredding Russia's constitution in the process, as many expected he would. But neither did he leave the political scene after his term expired. Instead, he installed a relative unknown in the presidency while simultaneously devolving power to the office of the prime minister, which he himself assumed. The result has been a complex and murky division of power, with Mr. Putin controlling Russia's informal state, made up of its security services, oligarchs and entrenched political interests. Mr. Medvedev, meanwhile, serves as the facade of Russia's formal state in its interaction with the world.
But is this system stable? Many would like to think it is not. For as long as the Putin-Medvedev dyad has existed, observers have been looking hard for signs of an internal schism or rupture.
There have indeed been some. Mr. Medvedev unmistakably has staked out a more progressive, activist role than his predecessor. In speeches and pronouncements, he has been refreshingly frank about Russia's culture of corruption and the deficiencies endemic to its legal system. He has called for "profound" economic reforms to shift Russia from an oil- and gas-centric economy to one built around technological innovation. He has spearheaded an ambitious military reform and restructuring effort aimed at streamlining and upgrading the Russian military. And he has fired a number of high-ranking state and regional officials for instances of flagrant incompetence and graft - transgressions previously ignored and even incentivized by the Kremlin.
Of these, perhaps the most noteworthy has been the high-profile late-September sacking of Yuri Luzhkov, the powerful mayor of Moscow. Since his appointment to the post in 1992, Mr. Luzhkov had been a virtual untouchable in Russian politics, buoyed by his successful management of the nation's capital and the support of the entitlement class created and enriched on his watch. Of late, however, Mr. Luzhkov's well-documented excesses had run afoul of the Kremlin, leading to a very public smear campaign and - ultimately - to the mayor's unceremonious firing at the hands of Mr. Medvedev. For sympathetic observers, it was proof positive that Russia's president had emerged at long last from Mr. Putin's shadow.
Their optimism is understandable. On the surface, at least, Mr. Medvedev's activism is a refreshing departure from the strong-arm politics and authoritarian rule that prevailed under Mr. Putin. But, lofty pronouncements aside, signs of real change in the character of the Russian state have been few and far between. That goes a long way toward explaining why a survey conducted by the business daily Vedomosti this spring found most Russians profoundly pessimistic about the likelihood that meaningful reforms will materialize.
They have good reason to be. Mr. Medvedev's tinkering with the trappings of Russia's formal state has done nothing to diminish Mr. Putin's hold on the informal one. To the contrary, it actually may be strengthening it. "Current Western analyses follow a longstanding tendency to misread the Kremlin by seeking to find within it a familiar contest of liberals versus conservatives," an analysis by Newsweek noted this spring. "The reality is that 'liberals' led by Medvedev are not challenging the siloviki; they are at their service."
Indeed, in looking at the strange and enduring symbiosis between Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the divisions in Russia's political system today have a great deal more to do with the public face the Kremlin wants to present to the world than with real, substantive differences about the direction of the Russian ship of state. Or, as one seasoned foreign policy insider wryly observed at a Washington gathering not long ago: "It is clear that there are two camps in Russia: a Putin camp and a Medvedev camp. The only question is which one President Medvedev himself is in."