Medvedev breaks ranks with Putin over Libya

22nd March 2011, Comments 0 comments

Russia adjusted on Tuesday to a shift in its politics after President Dmitry Medvedev for the first time broke ranks with Vladimir Putin by slamming the premier's comments on the Libya conflict.

In an unexpected dispute that shattered three years of harmony in Russia's ruling tandem, Medvedev publicly rebuked Putin for comments comparing the UN resolution that allowed air strikes on Libya to a medieval call to crusade.

Putin said the resolution was flawed and an example of an increasing trend of US military intervention, in direct contradiction of Russia's decision to abstain in the vote which in essence allowed the resolution to be passed.

Analysts said the comments essentially marked the start of Russia's 2012 presidential election campaign where many expect Putin to seek to return to the Kremlin after handing over the presidency to Medvedev in 2008.

A grim-faced Medvedev told Russians on state television that using words such as "crusade" --- expeditions by armies in the Middle Ages to end Muslim rule over the holy land --- in reference to a Muslim country was unacceptable.

"Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions which essentially lead to a clash of civilisations. Such as 'crusade' and so on," Medvedev said in the hastily-convened briefing.

"It is unacceptable. Otherwise, everything may end up much worse compared to what's going on now. Everyone should remember that," Medvedev said.

Whereas any previous differences between Russia's ruling pair had been subtle to the point of invisibility, Monday's row stunned observers by blowing up within the space of hours and its sheer lack of ceremony.

"President Dmitry Medvedev, after agreeing to the bombing of Libya, found himself with an influential opponent -- Prime Minister Vladimir Putin," said the Vedomosti daily.

Putin had told the workers at the factory where he was speaking that the comments were a "personal" opinion but pro-Kremlin political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky said the premier had made a rare political error.

"Medvedev's sharp reply needs to be understood as a reminder of the need for loyalty within the tandem whose participants cannot wage competing election campaigns," he told the Interfax news agency.

He said that "not only Medvedev's opponents but also those of Putin -- everyone who wants to split the tandem and destabilise the situation -- will latch on to Putin's mistake."

Medvedev has long championed a "reset" of relations with the United States and made much of a strong personal bond with President Barack Obama, something that never seemed to impress Putin.

Coincidentally, the dispute has taken place in the midst of a visit to Russia by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who will meet Medvedev later on Tuesday.

Putin and Medvedev have long said they will decide together which of them will stand for the Kremlin in 2012 but the dispute as raised the prospect that Medvedev will not meekly step aside for his former mentor.

A Kremlin official told Vedomosti that foreign policy in Russia is the domain of the president and "the president alone" while the premier had merely expressed a personal opinion.

But a government source told the paper Putin's comments were no accident since Russia's position on Libya needed to be "corrected" and indicated that Putin would speak out again while on a visit to Serbia and Slovenia this week.

The Kommersant daily meanwhile said that while Medvedev and Putin had had disagreements in the past this was the most serious and the first time a split had emerged within a few hours.

© 2011 AFP

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