Putin and Medvedev: Russia's uneven tandem
Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, who have ruled Russia in a unique tandem for almost four years, will look to cement their long-term grip over the country in Sunday's parliamentary elections.
Their unusual arrangement has seen Medvedev hold the presidency since 2008 and Putin act as prime minister. But it has always been clear who is the senior partner in a pairing dubbed Batman and Robin by a secret US cable.
And any notions of their political differences were exploded in September when Medvedev announced he would voluntarily cede the Kremlin to Putin in 2012 presidential elections and then take the job of prime minister.
They have spent the run-up to Sunday's elections to the State Duma making an unusual number of joint appearances across the nation under the slogan: "Together We Will Win".
"Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin really is modern Russia's most popular, experienced and successful politician," Medvedev said during a recent attempt to explain why he was standing down in favour of Putin in 2012.
Their contrasting styles and career paths now clearly merge at a vision of Russia smoothly navigating financial storms thanks to a unified leadership and rebuilding the global prestige it held in communist times.
Both Putin and Medvedev share the distinction of being unlikely candidates when they were hand-picked by their predecessor and approved in uncompetitive elections in which the state media always played the dominant role.
Ex-KGB agent Putin rose from seemingly nowhere to claim the Kremlin seat upon Boris Yeltsin's shock resignation on New Year's Eve 1999.
He immediately surrounded himself with a coterie of security service agents and financial insiders that he trusted from his days in the Saint Petersburg city government to sweep out Yeltsin's old Moscow team.
This was accompanied by a halt to regional elections and the fall of TV to state interests for the first time since Communist times. Putin soon also made sure that music to the Soviet national anthem restored the Russian hymn.
Putin's Saint Petersburg friends meanwhile were put in charge of top companies while the state launched an unrelenting campaign to break up the one that refused to budge -- the now-jailed Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Yukos oil firm.
Putin later said he viewed the collapse of Moscow's old empire as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century.
The 59-year-old's relations with the West had weakened considerably by the time he handed over power to Medvedev in 2008 after serving the maximum two terms allowed under the constitution.
Russia entered a bitter five-day war with its neighbour Georgia and Putin was leaving behind what the Kremlin dubbed "sovereign democracy" -- a carefully managed political system.
Medvedev's arrival that spring of 2008 had been met with initial relief in Europe and the United States. The former Gazprom gas giant executive was seen as a younger and more liberal leader who had a taste for democratic chance.
US President Barack Obama's administration responded by launching a "reset" in ties with Moscow in 2009 that was quickly followed by the signature of a key arms reduction deal.
Yet Medvedev -- who never shrugged off his reputation as being his mentor's much weaker understudy -- did little to give up the state's big stake in industry or lift the new media restrictions.
He adopted the mantra of "modernisation" and began plotting plans to create Russia's version of the Silicon Valley outside Moscow and turn the capital into a global financial centre linking Asia's booming markets with Europe.
Yet all those plans remain largely on paper while investors complain of the same levels of state corruption and court partiality as were widely in evidence when Putin left office.
And Medvedev's own line on domestic politics often looked blurred: he once famously accused Putin's ruling United Russia party of "stagnation" while still failing to champion an alternative or fully ally himself with the liberals.
© 2011 AFP