Twelve years ago last month, Russia's prime minister made a U-turn in midair while traveling to Washington, and Russia's president called on his nation to "stop Clinton" from bombing of Yugoslavia.
At the time, the NATO bombing campaign brought long-sought national unity in Russia by allowing Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov to exploit the surge of anti-U.S. public sentiment over the bombing of the Serbs, with Mr. Yeltsin's rival politicians, Communists, and ultra-nationalists jumping on the bandwagon.
Ironically, the NATO bombing campaign in Libya achieved the opposite result.
When NATO started bombing Col. Moammar Gadhafi's air-defense facilities in an effort to enforce the U.N. no-fly zone resolution, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was in Serbia, denouncing this act as another crusade of the West.
His long-believed placeholder and minion, President Dmitry Medvedev, quickly denounced Mr. Putin's use of the word "crusade" as capable of provoking a war of civilizations.
This discord in their pronouncements was not a complete surprise to Kremlin watchers. In the previous week, Mr. Medvedev used his presidential prerogatives to cancel Mr. Putin's policy for the Russian mission at the United Nations and had Russia abstain rather than veto the resolution.
This is the first time Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Putin publicly disagreed on a major issue. Previously, any hint of a disagreement between them was quickly disavowed, as happened last year when Mr. Medvedev sacked veteran Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov after the latter tried to publicly exploit rumors of a real estate dispute in which Mr. Putin's associates were allegedly involved.
Independent analysts in Moscow are trying to gauge whether the Putin-Medvedev split over Libya represents a disagreement over which of them is going to run in the 2012 presidential election, a decision that both have repeatedly claimed would be made jointly.
Even if it is so, what's more important is whether the security services and security services-affiliated oligarchs are developing a split on this issue.
So far there is no reliable data to confirm that.
Mr. Medvedev's public disagreement with Mr. Putin may be a signal to those in Russia's security services who feel shortchanged by Mr. Putin, who has brought some of their colleagues to the key posts in the government and to boards of directors of Russia's largest corporations.
But since Mr. Medvedev has chosen to cast an image of a more pro-Western leader than Mr. Putin, he will likely stick with it as his position with Russia's security apparatus strengthens.
The irony is that Mr. Putin has spent the past 12 years subjugating Russia's regional leaders and political opposition as well as the judicial and legislative branches of power. As a result Mr. Medvedev as president is a de facto monarch as long as he can get the security apparatus to rig election results his way and not the way of Mr. Putin.
It is equally true that the only viable opposition to Mr. Putin may come from the security services, which enjoy the full power in Russia right now.
As far as the U.S. interest in the matter is concerned, the litmus test of Mr. Medvedev's political viability would be his pardoning of Mr. Putin's nemesis — Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Formerly Russia's richest man and an oil tycoon, Mr. Khodorkovsky was sentenced to 14 years in prison a few months ago in the second trial by a kangaroo court in Moscow for alleged embezzlement and money laundering. Initially, he was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to nine years in prison in 2005, after his plans to pursue trade partnerships with the United States and possibly run for president became public.
Mike Sigov, a former Russian journalist in Moscow, is a U.S. citizen and a staff writer for The Blade.
Contact him at: email@example.com or 419-724-6089.
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