MOSCOW — Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, once one of Russia's most popular leaders, is now politically a "dead man walking" as his former mentor, President Vladimir Putin, undermines him, leading many to predict that the ruthless president is preparing to dump his reform-minded protege.
Mr. Medvedev, 47, was always the junior partner in the Kremlin duo with Mr. Putin, the 60-year-old former KGB officer. They even traded the top government spots so Mr. Putin could remain in power.
But somewhere between Mr. Medvedev's term as president from 2008 to 2012 and Mr. Putin's return to the presidency in May, the political romance faded.
Mr. Putin has been reversing Mr. Medvedev's reforms, making slander a crime again and imposing Kremlin control over the direct election of Russian governors. Meanwhile, the pro-Putin state-controlled media ignores the prime minister or carries negative stories about him.
Analysts generally agree that Mr. Medvedev's dismissal and political obscurity are imminent.
"Mr. Putin has already decided on the issue of Mr. Medvedev. Now it's just a matter of time before he goes," said Andrei Piontkovsky, a Moscow-based political writer. "This will be when it's most advantageous for Mr. Putin."
Nikolay Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, was more succinct: "In a political sense, Mr. Medvedev is a dead man walking."
When Mr. Medvedev was elected president five years ago, he proclaimed, "Freedom is better than nonfreedom." He inspired a generation of urban, educated Russians who were hoping for genuine reforms.
But Mr. Medvedev proved too independent for Mr. Putin, who served as prime minister during his presidency. Mr. Putin, president from 2000 to 2008, could not seek a third consecutive term under the Russian Constitution and tapped Mr. Medvedev to be a place-holder until he could run again in 2012.
There also has been widespread speculation that Mr. Putin, who as president appoints the prime minister, could replace Mr. Medvedev with Sergei Shoigu, the newly installed and popular defense minister.
In another high-profile slight, Mr. Putin in November personally picked the head of the ruling United Russia party's parliamentary faction instead of letting Mr. Medvedev, the official party leader, do the job.
Mr. Putin's irritation with Mr. Medvedev stems in part from his belief that the younger politician's support for reforms as president gave birth to an anti-Putin movement. As prime minister late last year, Mr. Medvedev expressed public sympathy for Mr. Putin's critics.
"Certain issues that are being voiced [by the opposition] are probably reasonable, and the authorities should take action on them," Mr. Medvedev said.
Mr. Medvedev also spoke out for a milder handling of a feminist punk group whose anticlerical and anti-Putin prayer in a Moscow cathedral landed several of its members in jail last year. Mr. Putin accused the group of "undermining moral foundations" of Russia, but Mr. Medvedev criticized the court's harshness in imposing a three-year sentence on the musicians.
Analysts also suggest that Mr. Medvedev's dismissal would help Mr. Putin isolate high-level advocates of political, social and economic reform.
"A new element of the Kremlin's strategy is to seek to discipline its own supporters and to weaken these groups in the elite in which Vladimir Putin has limited confidence," Jadwiga Rogoza, an analyst at the Center for Eastern Studies, said in a report issued by the Warsaw-based think tank. "The Kremlin is starting to treat them as a group that will not necessarily support the president in the event of an escalation of problems and will rather try to build up its own political capital by playing on such instability."
With Mr. Putin's popularity falling slowly but steadily, Mr. Medvedev could be dismissed in a bid to boost the president's declining approval ratings.
A poll released by the independent Levada Center last week indicated that only 32 percent of Russians would vote for Mr. Putin if presidential elections were held this month.
Things could get even worse for Mr. Putin, as discontent rises over massive increases in fees for housing and public utilities, which rose by about 250 percent overnight in some places this month, sparking protests across the country.
"It will all depend on how critical the situation becomes," said Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent Moscow-based analyst. "But if you dismiss someone, this immediately implies responsibility. Things should get better afterward, but it is clear the economy is not going to improve significantly anytime soon.
"But Putin doesn't like to part with people who have been loyal to him," Mr. Oreshkin said. "When he gets rid of Medvedev, it will be done respectfully, with a golden parachute."
Mr. Oreshkin suggested that the Kremlin is wary about ruining the official line of a warm friendship between the president and prime minister.
"Firing Medvedev would spoil the image the public has been fed of this great friendship between the country's two leading politicians," he said. "Instead, it would turn out they've been in this dogfight."
⦁ Charles McPhedran in Berlin contributed to this report.