Broad backlash to Putin reforms

The Russian president is losing popular support over his pension reforms and 'managed democracy.'

More than a week of growing protests across Russia - sparked by reforms to the welfare system - are a rare challenge to Vladimir Putin and signal trouble for the once widely popular president.

Although Mr. Putin on Monday blamed his government for inept handling of the law, which came into force Jan. 1, scores of protesters for the first time are aiming their anger directly at the president. Millions of pensioners began receiving meager cash handouts in place of Soviet-era benefits such as free public transportation, free medicine, and utility subsidies.

"Nobody ever believed there could be so much social dissent about pensions, but [Putin's] reputation could be seriously damaged or broken by 2006," says Lilia Shevtsova, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Only two things have kept him going: [high] oil prices and lack of alternatives. If people are unhappy, they start looking for alternatives," she says.

Results released last week of a poll by ROMIR Monitoring, of 1,500 Russians in more than 100 cities, found that 49 percent agreed that current policies were leading to a "dead end." Only 38 percent felt otherwise. That result is a turnaround from a year ago, when a similar poll found that just 29 percent agreed Russia was heading toward a "dead end," while 53 percent agreed the country was on the right path.

"In all, the implication was the sense of ambiguity and injustice, discrepancy between the official statements that the economy is growing and the lack of practical progress in living standards," ROMIR director Nikolai Popov told Novaya Izvestia newspaper.

But erasing subsidies is just one of a host of changes that point to a risky Kremlin agenda that will determine the shape of politics in Russia for years to come. They include the end of direct elections for regional governors and the start of a party-list system for electing deputies that favors the ruling United Russia party.

Critics see the changes as a deliberate reversal of once-budding democracy; the Kremlin calls the new authoritarian trend "managed democracy."

"In Russia we can talk about the end of politics," says Ms. Shevtsova.

"The trend is quite serious, because the president has dismantled all democratic checks and balances. He is creating a political desert," she says.

Putin was elected to a second term last March, and despite the slow-burn conflict in Chechnya and a string of terrorist attacks, he has long had popularity ratings of 80 percent or higher that are the envy of most Western politicians. Putin has symbolized a welcome degree of stability for many Russians after the unbridled Boris Yeltsin years of the 1990s, immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But events of late are taking some of the shine off Putin's rule.

Authorities drafted a controversial antiterror bill after the Beslan school hostage drama. The bill is a smorgasbord of get-tough measures, such as being able to declare a state of emergency that vastly increases the powers of the security services at the expense of civil liberties.

Vague wording means that even protesting pensioners fear the bill could be used to crack down on them, or any dissent not related to terror. Legislation enacted last year already restricts public protests.

The antiterror law "doesn't solve any issue" and could "serve as a smoke screen in case of social conflict," says Alexei Kondaurov, a communist Duma deputy and former KGB general. It will "only seem 'democratic' to the people who will be calling [special services] about their suspicions. Regional bosses will always be tempted to introduce this regime in case they face some social tension."

United Russia defends the law as necessary to determine the chain of command in emergencies. "Our constitution stipulates that some rights might be restricted by a federal law to ensure citizens' security," says Vladimir Yuriev, an aide on the Duma's Security Committee. "I think it is better to restrict rights than to let people suffer."

FROM abolishing subsidies to new antiterror rules, however, acceptance in Russia will depend largely on how the law is enforced. The way oil giant Yukos was dismantled, with assets seized by state-run companies in a mysterious bidding procedure last month, has investors - and liberal democrats - worried.

Putin argues that the Yukos case, brought by authorities demanding $27 billion in back taxes, has been conducted in strict accordance to the law. But even the president's own maverick economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, called the deal a "swindle" that would have "bloody consequences."

Decrying what he called the "amputation" of democratic institutions, Mr. Illarionov - who was demoted earlier this month after making his comments - complained on Ekho Moskvy Radio that unresolved problems "tend to accumulate" and undermine central power.

"If there are no traditional, legal ways to resolve crises, there is no other way out but revolution," Illarionov said. "We will inevitably arrive there, if the trends we have today prevail."

"Illarionov knows very well there were no checks and balances all this [post-Soviet] time. The problem for Putin is to create checks and balances," says Sergei Markov, an analyst close to the Kremlin, and a member of the president's Council for the Development of Civil Society.

"[Russia] has been a mix of democratic and authoritarian trends, and chaos," says Mr. Markov. "The problem is the Kremlin does not care about democracy. It is good we have less anarchy, but the direction should be toward democracy."

The year will be crucial to Putin's rule, because "it will be the beginning of the political struggle of 2008 - who will succeed Putin?" adds Markov.

Pressures are also building abroad. Putin's relations with the US have been strained over the contested elections in Ukraine, where the Kremlin backed Viktor Yanukovich, the losing regime-chosen candidate. Washington has already signaled its "deep concern" about Russia's direction, and that Putin should expect tough talk when he meets President Bush in Brataslava, Slovakia on Feb. 24.

"We thought [Putin] was much smarter, but once you start the [central power] ball rolling, it takes you with it. I don't think there will be an apocalyptic decline in his power," says Shevtsova. "But this will be a year when society will have to realize the limits of this authoritarian model ... pensioners are showing the limits of social policy."

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