Reporting from Moscow — The 2012 Russian presidential elections may be over already.
Vladimir Putin's words and deeds of late have made it eminently clear that he's had enough of being prime minister and wants the No. 1 job back from President Dmitry Medvedev. And many experts believe it's his for the taking.
Amid what political analysts have identified as a fierce power struggle between the two Russian leaders, the expulsion of a key Medvedev aide from the Kremlin is being interpreted as a sign that Putin has gained the upper hand.
And Medvedev's own recent comments referring to life after politics have done little to alter that impression.
Two weeks ago, Medvedev's political advisor, Gleb Pavlovsky, discovered he was no longer welcome as a political strategist in Moscow's halls of power. "I think I lost my position in the Kremlin due to an impulse from Putin's team," Pavlovsky said in an interview after news of his firing in mid-April leaked out this week.
"If Putin returns to the Kremlin, this will weaken the institution of the Russian presidency," said Pavlovsky, president of the Efficient Politics Foundation. He said such a move would "look scandalous even for his own supporters."
But Medvedev already has given indications that he sees a future outside the Kremlin. During a recent tour of an online television network, he said he would like to teach because "it is simply a must for any politician who has led a state to by all means talk about some of his experiences, negative or positive."
Medvedev said he would like to lecture not only at the Skolkovo business school — one of the keys to his ambitious modernization program — "but at other places too."
"It was more than simply a slip of the tongue, it was a white flag on his part," said Andrei Piontkovsky of the Systems Analysis Institute. "Medvedev must have finally given up hope that Putin will allow him to stay in the Kremlin for another six years. … The Russian top political alpha male can't afford to wait that long."
Putin, from using his post as prime minister to bring the 2014 Winter Olympics and 2018 World Cup to Russia, to tagging a polar bear with a transponder, to singing "Blueberry Hill" in English at a benefit concert, has not shirked from taking center stage.
"Medvedev himself understands that he is no match for Putin," said Dmitry Oreshkin, a senior analyst with the Institute of Geography. "Even if both men run, Putin, apart from his popularity, controls the central election commission, whose head is his personal friend and loyal supporter.… In Russia, it doesn't count how people vote, it's how the votes are counted."
Only a short while ago, the winners and losers in Moscow's greatest political game appeared to be reversed.
In March, Medvedev publicly rebuked Putin over his criticism of the NATO-led military operation in Libya.
Putin had compared the alliance's mission to "a medieval crusade" and insisted that the events in Libya "once again prove that we are right in strengthening the defense capability of Russia."
The same night, Medvedev, making a televised address wearing the uniform of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, admonished Putin by saying it was "inadmissible to use expressions that in fact lead to a clash of civilizations, like 'the crusades' and so on."
"It is unacceptable," he said of Putin's statement. "Otherwise, it may end far worse than what is going on now, and everybody must remember it."
Medvedev continued his political offensive by issuing a decree in late March ordering Cabinet members to relinquish seats on boards of major state-owned companies to promote a spirit of free competition. Putin's right-hand man and "gray cardinal," Vice Premier Igor Sechin, had to quit as chairman of Rosneft, a leading Russian oil company.
Others in the ruling United Russia Party were quickly demoted after openly supporting Putin's position on Libya.
But Putin decisively turned the tables in April, delivering a four-hour report to the parliament's lower house in which he outlined future strategy and argued that the nation "must become one of the five leading world economies … with the average income of $35,000 per person."
"It was not a premier's but a president's speech, casting a strategic vision of the nation's development for decades ahead," analyst Oreshkin said. "In contrast to the energetic and omnipresent Putin, Medvedev has looked recently like a deflated balloon who knows that his time in office runs to a close, with no chances to be reelected."
During a news conference this week while on a visit to Stockholm, Putin was at his self-confident best as he suggested that the 2012 race was quickly narrowing down to one choice: "The time will come and we will take a corresponding decision. You will like it. It will make you pleased."