Protest mood tests Putin as poll countdown begins
Rumblings of protest and increased criticism of the authorities on the Internet present a new test for the Russian ruling elite led by Vladimir Putin one year before presidential polls, analysts said.
But while Russia has in the last months seen unusual protests on issues ranging from sirens used by officials to a highway through a forest and time zones, they do not -- for now -- pose the risk of an Egypt-style turnaround.
The last presidential elections held on March 2, 2008, delivered Dmitry Medvedev to the Kremlin for a four year mandate, taking over from Putin who had served a maximum two terms and instead became a powerful prime minister.
Putin, still seen as Russia's de-facto leader, now has the right to stand again as president. He and Medvedev have made two things clear -- they will not compete against each other and they will decide who will stand nearer the time.
A crucial indicator will be parliamentary elections at the end of 2011 which will test the dominance of the ruling party United Russia in regions which have seen the biggest protests against authorities.
These include Moscow and Saint Petersburg as well as further-flung regions with a tradition of liberal thinking and a string of local gripes against the Kremlin like the western Kaliningrad exclave and the Far East.
In one bizarre incident in the Far East Kamchatka region, the authorities tried to ban a production of Cinderella when audiences cheered wildly at what they saw as a subliminal protest against a Kremlin-imposed time zone change.
"The mood has changed and there are reasons to be worried," pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov, a United Russia MP in the State Duma parliament, told AFP.
"The ratings for the authorities remain very high but the protest mood is growing in the country," he added. "This pre-election year promises to be more stormy than the last."
The Internet -- finally now penetrating deep into Russia -- has allowed activists like whistleblowing shareholder Alexei Navalny to expose abuses at state firms or bloggers to claim Putin is building a lavish new dacha on the Black Sea.
Forums like Live Journal and social networking sites have given critical Russians a chance to spread their views, be it criticising the authorities on their response to terror attacks or mocking the mascots for the 2014 Olympics.
According to the Renaissance Capital brokerage, Russia's Internet penetration rate is still only 45 percent, compared with 84 percent in Britain, but broadband Internet access is now expanding fast.
"Opposition supporters are particularly speaking out on the Internet," said Markov. "For the moment this protest has no defined political expression but if it gets one, it could change the election campaign."
And there is much fodder for complaint.
Corruption remains endemic and events like the murder of 12 people in a farmer's house in south Russia in November by a known criminal group expose how anarchy has been allowed to rage unchecked in some places.
"There is dissatisfaction and for the State Duma elections United Russia will see a drop in its support," liberal political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told AFP. "But the situation has not yet reached a crisis."
"The oil price is high and this covers the holes."
Russia remains in suspense over which of the ruling duo will choose to stand and win an almost certain victory on the back of continued popularity and slavish state media support.
Medvedev has tried to shrug off his image as a puppet of Putin.
One of his most radical moves has been a shake-up of Russia's regional governors, removing unpopular bosses in Kaliningrad and Kamchatka, Muslim strongmen in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan and Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov.
Yet observers say that all official meetings on strategy for the next decade are chaired by Putin and not Medvedev while top civil servants are acting on the assumption that Putin will continue to be their supreme boss.
Yet while Russia's elite prepares to consolidate its power in the 2012 polls even as the Arab revolts shake the Middle East, its ride in the medium term may not be so easy.
Long-serving Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said this month that only fair elections would provide the authorities with the legitimacy to carry out change, a comment whose bluntness stunned some observers.
According to Dmitry Belousov of the Centre for Macronomic Analysis and Forecasting which advises the government, Russia's economy risks falling into an inertia of dull growth, soaring imports and growing devaluation risks.
Already in 2014-2015, Russia could fall into a "Latin American" cycle of repeated devaluations, he said.
"There are objective reasons for concern on the part of the authorities," said Oreshkin.
"They have the subjective feeling that they control the situation. But this is what the Arab regimes had. A false feeling that everything was under control."
© 2011 AFP