Angling for the Russian presidency

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Media captionRussians are waiting for news of who will run for president next March - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or President Dmitry Medvedev?

As members of Russia's governing party, United Russia, gather for a congress ahead of parliamentary elections later this year, President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have still not made clear which will be running for the presidency next year.

One sleepy afternoon last month, Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin went fishing together on the River Volga.

Official images from the trip show Russia's top two politicians standing side by side with their fishing rods - a symbol of their political double act which has governed Russia for the last four years.

But these are not equal partners.

One photograph shows President Medvedev beaming from ear to ear after hooking himself a giant pike.

All Prime Minister Putin could muster was a puny perch.

Waiting game

He may have caught the smaller fish, but it is Mr Putin who most Russians believe has the greater influence in the country - and far more power.

There is speculation he plans to end their double act and return to the Kremlin in March.

In the past, Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev have said they would decide together which of them will stand in the presidential election.

But they are keeping everyone guessing. It is a silence which is making Russian politics feel just like fishing - one big waiting game.

Mr Putin certainly looks like a man who is already on the campaign trail.

In recent weeks he has been boosting his profile by diving for treasure, playing the piano and playing ice hockey in public. He has even appeared at a bikers' rally on a three-wheeled Harley Davidson.

Not to be outdone, this week Mr Medvedev took part in a photo opportunity at the newly renovated Bolshoi Ballet.

He looked very presidential, almost imperial, posing in the majestic Tsar's Box.

'No precedents'

Like Mr Putin, the incumbent president does not look ready to exit the political stage. His supporters are urging him to fish for a second term.

"I think President Medvedev has every reason to be satisfied, even proud, of his term in presidency," said Mr Medvedev's adviser Igor Yurgens.

"He did a lot both for the Russian Federation and the outside world. I don't think that if we compare his record with that of Obama, Blair, Sarkozy or Berlusconi he should be ashamed," he said.

"And I don't see any historical precedent when a president like this, with a very good record, would all of a sudden say 'Look, I'm not running for a second term'."

There may be no precedent. But there is Mr Putin. And, for Dmitry Medvedev, that is the crucial factor.

"Only 14% of Russians believe that Medvedev is the real president," argues political analyst Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

"So for Russians there is no question who is the real leader; who is the national leader; who is the boss of the country; and who really presses the buttons," she said.

"They know this guy is Mr Putin. It's Putin who controls the power structures, the financial mechanisms in the government and the budget. I would say Putin will try to return."

Some observers believe Vladimir Putin may reveal his plans at a United Russia congress this weekend.

Mr Putin is the leader of the party, although - bizarrely - not a member.

Topping the agenda will be December's parliamentary election. Russians, though, will be watching closely for any hints about Mr Putin's plans for the presidential poll.

'No difference'

But is the question of who will run for president a red herring?

Most Russians suspect that, even if he does not run for president, Mr Putin will remain the key figure on the Russian political stage.

Kremlin critics say the "will-he-won't-he" saga masks the reality that Russians today have no genuine political choice.

"I don't see much difference between Putin and Medvedev," said Lilia Shevtsova.

"They have the same agenda. Medvedev, being Putin's secretary, assistant, loyalist, one of the gang for 20 years, he became Putin's clone," she said.

"The Kremlin loves us to discuss who is going to be the boss in the Kremlin. It distracts our attention from the real Russian problems, like the absolutely amazing, ridiculous total corruption of the system, the growing social gaps and the fact that Russia has lost its momentum to modernise itself."

Mr Medvedev's adviser Igor Yurgens believes that is precisely why the current president should continue in the Kremlin.

"Whether he likes it or not," Mr Yurgens explained, "Mr Putin is the representative of the security forces, the armed forces, the oil and gas sector. Mr Medvedev is the representative of the new generation, the internet generation, the intelligentsia, liberal professions and the judicial community.

"Those are two different coalitions and support groups. The first is conservative, the second is a little more liberal. I would say we need this healthy dose of liberalism at the moment."

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