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Can discontent loosen Putin’s grip on Russia?

Posted by Kris Roman on December 29, 2008


Chaos or control.

FINANCIAL/RUSSIA-PROTESTFor centuries, Russians have feared both extremes, and moderation has made little headway.

In the “wild East” 1990s, it was chaos, with a crumbling Soviet Union, crashing economy, destructive territorial war, and society galloping in all directions.

The needle swung back in the 21st century, with president Vladimir Putin in charge, oil prices spiralling upward, and “managed democracy” the new order.

But, after almost a decade in power, Putin, now prime minister to Dmitry Medvedev’s president, is faced with the most dangerous crisis of his leadership. As oil prices plummet and the ruble slides, discontent is stirring and his popularity, once guaranteed, is now uncertain.

For the first time, analysts are pondering whether Putin can maintain his widespread public support, and whether a Russia seething with discontent is more or less threatening than one that is under increasingly tight control.

Putin’s personal rating remains at about 59 per cent. But a recent poll by the Moscow-based Public Opinion Foundation found that 39 per cent of responders were unhappy with the government he heads, and in some of the sprawling regions, the number climbed to 50 per cent.

Putin’s rollback of democracy, with centralization of power, control of the media and crackdowns on opponents, has been widely criticized in the West.

To many Russians, Putin’s an icon of stability, and the tradeoff of economic security for civil liberties worth the wager.

A new law to extend the president’s term from four to six years makes it likely Putin will take at least one more turn in the country’s top job, and that Medvedev may move aside for him before a new election is due.

The decision to rush the bill through two houses of parliament reflects the seriousness of the economic crisis, and possible anxiety over keeping unrest under control.

Although Putin has substantial power as premier, the president controls the security services. Last month, Medvedev ordered law enforcement officials to suppress social unrest, but he has less personal clout with officers than Putin, and less experience in the use of force.

“There’s no doubt that Putin is willing to use force,” says Russia expert Kathryn Stoner-Weiss of Stanford University. “The question is how much force is he willing to use?”

There are signs discontent is on the rise in Russia.

Small groups of protesters have taken to the streets, and about two million people barraged Putin with questions about the economy in a nationally televised program earlier this month.

“The worse the crisis gets, the more dissatisfaction will grow, especially with regional authorities,” the Public Opinion Foundation poll’s organizer, Lyudmila Presnyakova, told Bloomberg news service.

But discontent is unlikely to loosen Putin’s hold on Russia, experts say.

“If there’s an uprising, it could be a nationalist one – not one against Putin,” says Angela Kachuyevski of Arcadia University’s international peace and conflict resolution program. “The growing middle class would be badly harmed.”

Under Putin, nationalistic youth groups called Nashi (“ours”) have hurled insults at opposition members and dissidents, calling them traitors, while police break up rallies with violence. Recently, Moscow city police have recruited volunteers from Nashi to prevent “destabilization” from demonstrations and opposition events.

“Nashi is no neutral group,” said Holly Cartner of Human Rights Watch in New York. “Our fear is that instead of keeping order, Nashi will try to silence critics.”

The repressive tactics have shattered much of the opposition. And this week, Nikita Belykh, one of the liberal opposition’s best hopes, announced he was quitting to work for the Kremlin: “When you cannot even get close in the elections, when all your paths are being cut off, then you just can’t have a political party,” he told reporters.

Putin’s grip on Russia is tightening in the economic sector, too, with a series of moves against natural resources companies to bring them under the influence, if not control of the Kremlin.

More shocks to the economy would make them more vulnerable to takeover, and further weaken Russia’s investment climate.

Meanwhile, the plunging price of oil has sent the ruble spinning downward for the first time in a decade, recalling the bank meltdown in 1998 that devastated many Russians. As the country’s surplus ebbs and foreign currency reserves are drained, many worry whether they will once again face daily fear that their money is losing its value.

Since those traumatic years under president Boris Yeltsin, Russians have looked to Putin as a steady hand on the wheel, and a generation has come of age in an era of rising living standards that many attribute to him.

With the opposition decimated, most of the media under Kremlin control and the security forces ready to back up Putin in time of crisis, there’s little room for open dissent, even as unease grows.

“Will people in Russia lose confidence in Putin? Absolutely,” says Stoner-Weiss. “Do they have an alternative? Probably not. Change in the short term looks unlikely.”


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