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More Putin-Medvedev cat and mouse?

Crowd of Libyan Protesters with FlagKonstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for "Izvestia" and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

Russia's blogosphere, certain radio stations and press are buzzing with discussions about a sudden spat between Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin over Libyan. Most commentators agree that this is yet another example of the "good cop-bad cop" routine that Russia's president and prime minister have performed over the last three years. As Stanislav Kucher, my dear colleague and friend, commented on Kommersant FM radio: "The song remains the same."

I tend to disagree. It is true that Messrs Medvedev and Putin have from time to time publicly expressed different opinions over this or that domestic issue. Their mild disagreements over the sentencing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky last December were probably the latest example of the rhetorical differences which never endangered the so-called tandem's structure and stability.

However there was one policy area where there were never any disagreements. This is foreign policy. Even the Russian government's liberal critics agreed that there is a broad and deep consensus over the aims and direction of Russia's external relations. Foreign policy plays a major domestic role in Russia, especially in the last ten years. It consolidates the people around the idea of "Fortress Russia", always alone, always on sovereign guard against Western encroachment, always suspicious of Western talk of democracy and human rights. Essentially, until recently, it was the agenda of country that fought to preserve the Soviet-era global outreach and status ­ minus the Communist ideology. Maintaining a consensus about foreign policy for Russia's leaders meant, in fact, demonstrating the stable support they enjoy at home.

These days of total agreement seem to be coming to an end. And that is why public disagreement between Putin and Medvedev over the UN Security Council resolution 1973 is significant. Not only did the prime minister criticize the president, which is highly unusual, but he effectively had to retract his criticism less than 48 hours later, when he said in Slovenia that it is the president who is conducting foreign policy.

It is also interesting that Medvedev and his team have referred to his keynote speech at the meeting with the Russian foreign ministry senior staff and ambassadors last July: There he said: "We must promote the humanization of social systems around the world and especially at home. At the same time, we must not trade off our national interests, and we must firmly protect them when necessary. But overall, it is in the interests of Russian democracy for as many nations as possible to follow democratic standards in their domestic policy." Few paid attention to these words in 2010, but now they are used as a clear reminder to everyone ­ the president intends not only to exercise day-to-day control of foreign affairs, but he also intends to set the agenda for it ­ and expects others to take this seriously.

I do not want to go into a detailed analysis of relative merits and demerits of Russia's position on resolution 1973. I happen to think that Russia would not have been disadvantaged even if it supported it, and I also think that abstaining keeps the window of opportunity open for Moscow to return to Libya when Gaddafi's finally out of the picture.

I do not believe that Russia's two leading politicians are playing some endlessly inventive game of cat and mouse with Russian society and the world. The stakes are too high and the risk of things going wrong is too big. I think what we are seeing is a reflection of conceptual differences between the two major strands of thinking inside Russia's ruling class, which have emerged in the wake of the global economic crisis.

Supporters of the first one tend to believe that Russia doesn't have the resources and does not need to maintain Soviet-style global outreach. It should instead focus on essential areas of national interest, like joining the WTO, attracting foreign investment, and eschew needless confrontation with the West and distance itself from unreliable partners like Gaddafi, who tend to get into trouble with the international community. At the same time this does not equal integration with the West or total agreement with it on everything.

Another strand of thinking is about containing Western, especially US influence, whenever and wherever possible, actively promoting the interests of state companies like Gazprom or Rosoboronexport, and paying no attention to humanitarian issues. Essentially people adhering to this worldview tend to disregard values and stress interests as the only basis for conducting foreign policy. Both groups tend to agree on a lot of issues and but the difference in approach is quite evident. Whether they intended this or not, Putin and Medvedev have now come to symbolize these differing approaches to Russia's place in the world, its foreign policy aims and, ultimately, its self-image.

In this decisive year get ready for more surprises, U-turns and unexpected decisions.

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