Russia's Kremlin race: Dmitry Medvedev v Vladimir Putin

Image caption Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin: will close partners soon become fierce rivals?

With just 10 months to go before Russia's next presidential elections, the general public and analysts are still in the dark about who will be running. Will incumbent leader Dmitry Medvedev seek a second term? Or is his predecessor and mentor Vladimir Putin planning a return? Might they even run against each other?

Here, the BBC's Moscow correspondents Daniel Sandford and Steve Rosenberg look at how each of the potential candidates may be charting his path to the Kremlin seat, and whether the political "tandem" is breaking down.

DMITRY MEDVEDEV, by Daniel Sandford

Dmitry Medvedev finds himself in a very uncomfortable position.

He is the president of the world's largest country, one of the richest in natural resources, and still one of the most powerful.

He has had a reasonably successful three years in office. Russia weathered the world financial crisis better than many countries, and his approval ratings are still good.

He has every right to run for a second presidential term.

Yet it is far from clear that he will, because always in the background is the very real possibility that his former mentor Vladimir Putin will want to become president again.

Travelling with Mr Medvedev on a regional visit in Kostroma some 300km (186 miles) from Moscow, the most striking thing was how similar his style appears to be to that of politicians in Western Europe.

He has a lightness of touch, a ready wit, and an instant rapport with people he meets.

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Media captionDmitry Medvedev has only just given his first major news conference

But there is some steel too. Our microphone caught an exchange with Kostroma Governor Igor Slyunyayev, who had congratulated him on driving himself in the convoy.

"Why are you congratulating me?" the president immediately replied. "It makes a lot of sense for me to drive myself because I can tell what the roads are like. By the way, your airstrip is crap."

The governor looked suitably chastened.

'Man with vision'

At the end of the visit some of the public gathered to talk to their president. But there was no great adulation.

That is Dmitry Medvedev's problem.

If the Russian political establishment gets behind him and he becomes their chosen candidate, then opinion polls suggest he would easily win the presidential election next year.

But his political support base does not appear to be that big. There would be no great public outcry if his political career ended next year.

There are some in the business and political "elite" who believe that six or even 12 more years of Vladimir Putin would be a disaster for Russia, entrenching a system that is growing increasingly corrupt.

They see Mr Medvedev as the man with the vision to take Russian democracy up a gear, and to make the rule of law apply to everyone.

History judgement

But it's far from clear that they are going to win the argument.

It leaves Mr Medvedev making what are apparently gentle criticisms of his former boss in an attempt to swing the internal debate.

"As far as I understand, he [Vladimir Putin] believes modernisation should be a calm, step-by-step process," he said at his set-piece press conference on Wednesday. "I think we have the opportunity and the energy to modernise more swiftly, without damaging what has already been done."

If Mr Medvedev loses the argument, he does not have to leave the political stage for ever.

He could run boldly against Vladimir Putin. He might well lose, but it would probably look better in the history books than just keeping the presidential seat warm for his former boss.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, by Steve Rosenberg

Vladimir Putin has not said if he plans to run for president, but in Russia actions often speak louder than words.

Mr Putin recently formed a new political movement - the All-Russian People's Front. Its stated aim is to bring together different political forces, business groups and trade unions to forge a common vision for Russia's future and breathe new life into reforms.

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Media captionVladimir Putin has refused to reveal his plans for the presidency

Its other aim (unstated) is to help Mr Putin's political party, United Russia, secure a majority in parliamentary elections this winter. Analysts predict it could serve as a springboard for Mr Putin to return to the Kremlin.

But Russia's prime minister doesn't like to talk about 2012 - just yet.

"He's not in pre-election mood," claims Mr Putin's press-secretary Dmitry Peskov.

"He's continuing his day-to-day job of prime minister, travelling around the country solving problems. He simply does not have time for sitting and thinking of the coming elections."

Russia's 'guardian'

If Mr Putin does stand for president, how much support can he expect to get?

The latest opinion polls suggest his popularity has fallen. But, with an approval rating of 53% in March, he remains the most popular politician in Russia.

To find out why, I travelled to the southern city of Krasnodar and asked people there what they think about Vladimir Putin.

"Speaking as a woman, I like Putin more," Irina, a 24-year-old marketing manager, told me. "He's more handsome than Medvedev. What's more, Putin started all these reforms. Medvedev is just continuing them."

"Putin is still the most powerful man in Russia," said pensioner Nikolai. "He guards the country."

'Good tsar'

What I found strange was that everyone I talked to had complaints to make - about the state of the education system, rising petrol prices, low pensions.

But few people seemed to blame the government directly for their problems, preferring to hold local officials or "rich oligarchs" responsible for things that go wrong.

So many people said the same thing to me: "No-one tells Putin or Medvedev the truth about what's going on down here!"

But the key to Mr Putin's popularity and his image as the "good tsar" is control of the media.

"Even in free and fair elections, perhaps Putin can win," believes political analyst Nikolai Petrov.

"But only due to the fact that the Russian media is totally controlled. There is no public politics at all. There is no way for public politicians to appear.

"The problem for the Kremlin is not how to put Putin into office, that part's easy. The bigger problem is how to combine the understandable decline of the legitimacy of the authorities in general with the complicated and painful tasks the next government should solve," Mr Petrov adds.

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