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As Vladimir Putin hits the campaign trail, is the Russian president jealous?

MOSCOW -- A dangerously close encounter with a 30-ton grey whale. Dousing fires in the country's worst ever heatwave. A 2,000- kilometer road trip across remote eastern Siberia.

Even for Russia's tough-guy Prime Minister Vladimir Putin it was a summer out of the ordinary.

The prime minister's unprecedented, action-packed 10-day tour of Siberia heralded the start of an election marathon whose winner will likely rule Russia for over a decade, Russian observers and media say.

“A feeling that Vladimir Putin has started an election campaign is getting stronger not by the day — by the hour,” mass-circulation newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets said.

But while Putin was wielding a crossbow on the Pacific Ocean or meeting his match in the shape of a wild bear, President Dmitry Medvedev conspicuously got on with the much more dour business of the presidency with little spectacle.

Rather than pitting himself against the Russian wilderness, Medvedev was pictured in his shirtsleeves grappling with the problems of farming or industry. His most high-profile stunt was a meeting with U2 singer Bono.

Russia is heading for presidential elections in 2012 and neither 57-year-old Putin nor his 44-year-old protege Medvedev ruled out standing but they have said they would agree who would run to avoid competing with each other.

Liberal-leaning Nezavisimaya Gazeta, quoting a source close to the Kremlin, said that Putin's Siberia tour forced Kremlin spin doctors to start revising its public relations strategy.

“The main question they tried to find an answer to is — Can you counter an authoritarian charisma with routine work?” the report said. “And do it so that it looks palatable in the eyes of the electorate?”

While a Kremlin spokesman declined to discuss the report, an analyst who advises the Kremlin on its image strategy hinted that changes would come soon.

The reason Medvedev's daily routine lacks the glamour and glitz of Putin's political performance is because the president is not — yet — on the campaign trail, Gleb Pavlovsky told AFP.

“He conspicuously distances himself from typical pre-election moves. That is why his PR-strategy may look bleak,” he said. “Obviously some very strong changes are awaiting us soon.”

Maria Lipman, analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, said it was hard to hazard a guess about Medvedev's true feelings but said he likely wanted to run again.

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