As Putin hits campaign trail, is Medvedev jealous?

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A dangerously close encounter with a 30-tonne grey whale. Dousing fires in the country's worst ever heatwave. A 2,000- kilometre road trip across remote eastern Siberia.

Even for Russia's tough-guy Prime Minister Vladimir Putin it was a summer out of the ordinary.

The prime minister's unprecedented, action-packed 10-day tour of Siberia heralded the start of an election marathon whose winner will likely rule Russia for over a decade, Russian observers and media say.

"A feeling that Vladimir Putin has started an election campaign is getting stronger not by the day -- by the hour," mass-circulation newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets said.

But while Putin was wielding a crossbow on the Pacific Ocean or meeting his match in the shape of a wild bear, President Dmitry Medvedev conspicuously got on with the much more dour business of the presidency with little spectacle.

Rather than pitting himself against the Russian wilderness, Medvedev was pictured in his shirtsleeves grappling with the problems of farming or industry. His most high-profile stunt was a meeting with U2 singer Bono.

Russia is heading for presidential elections in 2012 and neither 57-year-old Putin nor his 44-year-old protege Medvedev ruled out standing but they have said they would agree who would run to avoid competing with each other.

Liberal-leaning Nezavisimaya Gazeta, quoting a source close to the Kremlin, said that Putin's Siberia tour forced Kremlin spin doctors to start revising its public relations strategy.

"The main question they tried to find an answer to is -- Can you counter an authoritarian charisma with routine work?" the report said. "And do it so that it looks palatable in the eyes of the electorate?"

While a Kremlin spokesman declined to discuss the report, an analyst who advises the Kremlin on its image strategy hinted that changes would come soon.

The reason Medvedev's daily routine lacks the glamour and glitz of Putin's political performance is because the president is not -- yet -- on the campaign trail, Gleb Pavlovsky told AFP.

"He conspicuously distances himself from typical pre-election moves. That is why his PR-strategy may look bleak," he said. "Obviously some very strong changes are awaiting us soon."

Maria Lipman, analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, said it was hard to hazard a guess about Medvedev's true feelings but said he likely wanted to run again.

"It's his legitimate right to stay for another term," she said. "And it's hard to imagine he was happy to see what a big-time PR-campaign Putin unleashed."

After two consecutive terms in power Putin stepped down handing over the presidency to his long-time protege Medvedev in a choreographed election in 2008.

One of Medvedev's first steps in his new role was pushing through constitutional changes lengthening presidential terms to six years from four, fuelling speculation about a possible comeback by Putin.

If Putin, who in 2012 will turn 60, indeed returns to the Kremlin, he will likely stay in power for another 12 years, becoming Russia or the Soviet Union's longest-serving ruler after dictator Stalin.

By comparison, Soviet ruler Leonid Brezhnev, who in his late years became the butt of senility-themed jokes, ran the country for 18 years, while another political veteran Nikita Khrushchev stayed at the helm of the nation for 11 years.

Putin however would perhaps be more pleased if compared to the US president Franklin D. Roosevelt who, the premier noted this week, served four consecutive terms, from 1933 until his death in office in 1945.

While opinion polls and analysts say that the technocratic president has not managed to eclipse his mentor's popularity, he has clearly acquired a taste for power and made attempts at asserting his independence.

Newsweek's Russia edition said this week that some of Putin's recent stunts had not been agreed with the Kremlin and when the premier last month personally took controls of an amphibious jet to put out forest fires, the Kremlin considered it an outright violation of the rules of the game.

"They say the president was very angry," an unnamed Kremlin official told the magazine.

Putin's minders keep a poker face. "It was a routine working trip," Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told AFP, referring to his tour across the Far East and Siberia.

During that voyage Putin personally drove over 2,000 kilometers in a canary-yellow Lada sports car, two identical cars in tow in case the lead vehicle broke down.

"Medvedev is ready and wants to run for a second term," said Newsweek. "Putin is on the fence and they have not yet had a final talk about it."

© 2010 AFP

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