MOSCOW A plunging rouble, ravaged stock prices and rising unemployment are threatening to upset the delicate power structure used by Vladimir Putin to rule Russia from beyond the Kremlin.
When Putin left the Kremlin for the modest confines of the prime minister's office in May, he still controlled a vast flow of petrodollars that helped keep everyone from senior generals to factory workers firmly behind his leadership.
But as a growing economic crisis touches ever more Russians, analysts are starting to question the sustainability of the two-man "tandem" that Putin has built to share power with his protege, President Dmitry Medvedev.
"There are very serious grounds for a plunge in the ratings of Putin and Medvedev, which are now too high for such a crisis situation," said Nikolai Petrov, a Moscow-based political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.
"This is very dangerous for the whole political system," he said.
In one of the first hints a gap could be opening up between the two men, Medvedev on Sunday criticized Putin's government for not acting quickly enough to deal with the fall-out from the financial crisis; though he did not mention his mentor by name.
"Planned measures are being implemented slower than we expected, and more importantly, slower than the current circumstances demand," Medvedev told a televised meeting with business leaders.
The comments could be a sign of things to come, said independent political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin.
"Medvedev is politically very weak...but I think in future such criticism of the government will appear more and more frequently and clearly," he said.
"(Medvedev) did not mention Putin in person, but he underlined that there is a wall between the president's office and the government," which is responsible for the economy, he said.
After reaching an all-time high last year, the value of the Russian stock market has plunged more than 70 percent as highly leveraged state companies were pummeled by a global credit crunch.
The price of oil, Russia's main export, collapsed from $147 in July to under $40 per barrel.
LEGACY UNDER THREAT
People are now suffering widespread lay-offs and reeling from a 17 percent plunge in the value of the rouble against the central bank's euro and dollar basket that is cutting into their purchasing power.
As the crisis deepens, Putin's legacy as the man who saved Russia from the economic collapse of the 1990s could be destroyed -- possibly creating an opportunity for Medvedev, said Oreshkin.
"In the Putin era, there was enough for everyone, for the regional elite, the military elite, the business elite. There was even something left for the people," he said.
"There was a consensus behind Putin... Now we are starting to see the seeds of a Putin 'anti-consensus' where there is not enough for anyone."
Traditionally, Russian leaders simply put the blame for economic setbacks on the government and fire their prime minister.
But despite his technical demotion in May, Putin is widely seen as by far the most powerful man in the country making him, in effect, impossible to remove. Many believe him likely to return as president at the next election due in 2012.
"In the West, Medvedev would just sack Putin," said Yevgeny Volk, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation think tank. "But there is no way Medvedev is powerful enough."
"(But) eventually a split between Medvedev and Putin is inevitable because neither is willing to take responsibility for what is happening in the country," Volk said.
Putin likely has two main options, analysts said: either he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Medvedev and blames lower level officials or Putin finds a way to remove Medvedev, technically his boss.
"One scenario... is to try to put distance between Putin and Medvedev on the one hand and the actions of the government on the other," said Carnegie's Petrov.
First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov is the most likely "lightning rod" for criticism, he said.
"If this does not work, I would not rule out snap elections and the return of Putin to the presidency," he said. The key question is not when the Putin-Medvedev tandem breaks down, but rather when Putin decides to throw his partner off the bicycle, he said.
"The metaphor of a tandem does not really work here as this would require two people to be pedaling," said Petrov. "Only Putin is pedaling, Medvedev is sitting in the child's seat at the back."
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)