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Winston Churchill famously described the behind-the-scenes politics of the Kremlin as “bulldogs fighting under a rug”. But if the recent snapping and sniping is any indication, the current regime doesn’t make carpets the way the Soviets used to. Over the past few weeks, the once chummy relationship between Russia’s president and prime minister has taken a drastic turn for the worse – at least in terms of how it is portrayed publicly.
Back as top dog, Vladimir Putin has suddenly started taking jabs
at Dmitry Medvedev, his one-time protégé, and hitting him right where it hurts.
Last Tuesday Mr Putin lashed out at the way the prime minister was running his government, blaming the body for “systemic failures” in balancing the budget. The same day, United Russia, the pro-Kremlin party, put forward a motion to undo one of the most visible changes of Mr Medvedev’s presidency: the removal of winter time.
The measures are just the latest in a series of humiliating blows for
Mr Medvedev, whose standing has fallen so low he is now referred to on Twitter as “#zhalkii” (pathetic).
After Mr Medvedev lowered the retirement age for top civil servants to 60 to create a younger, more dynamic government, the president raised it back up to 70. Mr Putin has also challenged a hallmark of the Medvedev presidency – Russia’s 2008 victory in its short war with Georgia – by saying it was he who had advised Mr Medvedev.
As Kremlin photos can faithfully attest, the two men used to do everything together. They played badminton and billiards. They clinked glasses over football matches. They even traversed the slopes of Sochi in matching snowmobiles.
The prime minister has come out with guns blazing (or at least blazing by his standards).
Responding to Mr Putin’s complaint about the budget’s failures last week, he coyly suggested a solution: raid the coffers of Rosneftegaz, the state energy holding that is controlled by Igor Sechin, one of Mr Putin’s closest allies, and put the money towards the ballooning pension deficit.
The next day he suggested that the president had been responsible, in 2008, for causing New York-listed steel producer Mechel to lose half
of its value during a single day of trading.
On Twitter, where the president has earned a nickname for his unnaturally smooth face, it is now #Botox vs #Pathetic.
Sun sets on nobody
The jury is still out on Mr Medvedev’s ultimate fate, but one battle he appears already to have lost is the fight against time itself.
Last year Mr Medvedev boldly announced that Russia would not turn back the clocks in 2011 and would stay on summer time. The reasoning for this was simple, he said. The time change would “upset the human biorhythm” and distress “cows and other animals that don’t understand the clocks changing”.
While the cows may have been happier, cosmopolitan Muscovites have been in uproar. Their favourite gadget, the iPhone, went ahead and turned the clocks back, causing many residents’ October 30 to start an hour later. Watching the European Championships became impossible for those with a day job with kick-off pushed back from 11pm to midnight. A weekend trip to London now meant crossing four time zones in a four-hour flight.
By February, when most were at their wits’ end, Mr Putin floated
the idea of restoring winter time and last week United Russia put the motion to the Duma.
Andrei Vorobyov, a United Russia MP, said the summer-time experiment had been a disaster, adding that the number of instances of cardiovascular disease and depression had increased dramatically.
The new plan is for Russia to stay permanently on winter time, an even bigger affront to Moscow’s young elite who will no longer be able to enjoy 10pm summer suppers in broad daylight – “the worst, most retrograde option of all those possible”, as commentator Mikhail Fishman put it. “They are not just cancelling summer time in winter – they are bringing back winter time in summer. So it is not that it’s going to grow light an hour later in winter, but that it’s going to get dark an hour earlier in summer,” Mr Fishman wrote on his Facebook page. “And all for the sake of giving Medvedev a daily reminder of the fact that with the onset of early dusk each day, he is a nobody.”