Russia's ruling tandem has always been a bit of a good cop - bad cop act. President Dmitri Medvedev has been at pains to look humane, in contrast to the strong-arm approach preferred by his mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Now there is no longer a tandem, and Putin clearly intends to run Russia single-handedly after he wins the March 4 presidential election. So there would seem to be no reason for the show to go on. But it does, and the two old friends are mixing their signals like never before.

Good Cop

On Monday, Medvedev met with the leaders of what is known in Moscow as the “non-systemic opposition" -- a meeting that would have been unthinkable three months ago, before Moscow's middle class took to the streets to protest the unfair vote count in the Dec. 4 parliamentary election. These are the ruling regime's harshest critics, people who have been banned from organized politics and unable to get their parties on the ballot sheets. Three of the invitees to the meeting -- liberals Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Ryzhkov and leftist radical Sergei Udaltsov -- were among the most zealous organizers of the recent protests in Moscow.

Nemtsov handed Medvedev a list of 37 “political prisoners” and received vague assurances that the president would do his best to show clemency. Nemtsov then suggested that it might be a good idea if Russian politicians were banned from serving more than two terms as president (the current law forbids more than two consecutive terms). In his blog, Nemtsov later quoted Medvedev as saying he was “thinking about this all the time.” All the opposition leaders insisted on a new parliamentary election. Medvedev politely countered that though there may have been some irregularities, the elected parliament was legitimate.

Medvedev, of course, had his own agenda, and it did not include bending to opposition demands. To do that would mean seriously displeasing Putin, who has never hidden his contempt for Nemtsov and his associates. Instead, Medvedev wanted the opposition to endorse his recent proposals for political reform, which he sees as his major legacy as a one-term president. The reforms include three major items: Bring back direct gubernatorial elections in Russia's regions, simplify the registration of political parties (lowering the number of people required to create a party to 500 from 50,000) and change the system used to elect the Duma, parliament's lower house.

The first two proposals have received support from the protesters. The third and most recent one is more controversial. It splits the country into 225 “territories” in which parties can field candidates. To get on the ballot, a party needs no fewer than 100 candidates, no more than four of them in any one “territory.” The idea is to get parties to nominate people well known to voters locally, as opposed to Moscow stars and government officials. The votes, however, will be counted for the country as a whole, just as they are now, which makes the territorial system largely meaningless. The proposal stops short of allowing individual candidates to run in local constituencies, as they did in the 1990s, and again favors the pro-government United Russia party, which, thanks to its ties with the bureaucracy, has the strongest network at the local level.

The biggest problem with the political reform is that the next parliamentary election is in five years, while the presidential term has been expanded to six. That's a long time to maintain the level of protest activity Moscow has seen since December. So the protest leaders are unlikely to let themselves be distracted by Medvedev's advances, not least because of what the bad cop is doing just as the good one offers them tea and cookies.

Bad Cop

Putin -- who has likened the non-systemic opposition to Bandar-logs, the anarchic monkeys from Kipling's Jungle Book -- has chosen to explain himself to Russia's intellectual elite without giving it a chance to talk back. Since January, he has published five lengthy articles detailing his achievements and future policies, all in different newspapers. The latest article, which came out on Feb. 20 in the government-owned Rossiyskaya Gazeta, stresses the importance of Russia's military strength. It justifies a planned 23-trillion-ruble ($766 billion) boost to defense spending by arguing that “we must not tempt anyone with our weakness.”

Putin was unapologetic even in an article devoted to democracy, published in the liberal daily Kommersant. He wrote that if Russia's middle class was growing more politically active, it was thanks to him: “We have worked for this.”

The opposition has protested Putin's articles to the Central Election Commission as illegal campaigning: The pieces appeared on editorial pages and were not paid for from the presidential candidate's election fund. The commission replied, not unreasonably, that the articles were published because the newspapers' editors found them important to their readers.

Meanwhile, three media outlets critical of Putin appeared to come under pressure. The liberal editor of Echo Moscow radio station, Alexei Venediktov, was unexpectedly kicked off the station's board of directors by its owner, the state-owned natural gas monopoly Gazprom. He, and many others, believe the move had to do with Putin's displeasure at the station's openness to criticism of Putin. Almost simultaneously, pro-Putin parliament deputy Robert Shlegel asked the Prosecutor General's office to look into sources of funding for the independent TV station Dozhd, which gave extensive coverage to the Moscow rallies. And the hard-hitting weekly Novaya Gazeta ran out of money because, said its publisher Alexander Lebedev, incessant hassling by government investigators drove his National Reserve Bank into losses. Novaya has suspended payments to staff, who have nonetheless vowed to keep the paper running.

In short, Putin -- whom independent polls promise close to 50 percent support in the March 4 election, with no other candidate likely to get as much as 10 percent -- is giving everyone a preview of what things will be like after he wins. That's the thing about most good cop - bad cop routines: The good one may play a useful role in undermining resistance, but it's the bad one who means business.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: bershidsky@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net.