Russia's 'love affair' with Putin ending: analysts
A new mass rally against Vladimir Putin's domination of Russia shows that the protest movement had gained critical momentum and he must commit to change or risk losing power, analysts said.
While Saturday's rally will not topple Putin by itself, his once invincible popularity is irreparably damaged and the outcome of 2012 presidential elections far more uncertain than just one month ago, they added.
First triggered by widespread claims of egregious violations in December 4 parliamentary elections that handed a reduced majority to Putin's party, the protest movement is now increasingly targeting the Russian strongman himself.
Putin now faces a turbulent campaign for the March 4, 2012 presidential elections during which he is planning to return to the Kremlin for a third term after his four-year stint as prime minister.
"Other countries elect an official, a manager. For Russia it is a love affair that turns into hate," said Alexander Konovalov, president of the Institute of Strategic Assessment.
"Putin will not survive one presidential term, let alone two, unless there are very serious changes to satisfy people," he said. "There has been a de-legitimisation of the authorities and it's very serious."
Tens of thousands of people attended Saturday's protest in Moscow, the second mass opposition rally within a month and even bigger and more sharply critical of Putin than the first such protest two weeks ago.
"The authorities are trying to respond but are running out of time," said Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
"There is a danger of a revolution because in the conditions of a political desert there are no parties or politicians to channel this colossal social energy into a constructive solution."
Many Russians appear to feel insulted by Putin's decision to return to the Kremlin in the March polls, a move he presented as a fait accompli in a job swap announcement with incumbent President Dmitry Medvedev in September.
"Putin still has a great chance to be elected but he will not be able to reverse the fall in his popularity. After the election he will have to change this personal system of politics," said Petrov.
"But I do not think that Putin is capable of this."
After September's announcement Putin's approval ratings have declined to historic lows, and polls showed earlier this month he would not be able to secure victory in the first round.
As recently as the summer of 2010, Putin was so sure of his popularity that he was able to travel around Siberia with loyal media in tow and mesmerise the nation with often bare-chested stunts in Russia's wild nature.
But his touch seemed to have slipped this summer when he went diving in southern Russia and "discovered" ancient Greek urns that it later turned out had been especially placed there for him to find.
Just before the disputed elections, Putin was unexpectedly whistled at by unhappy fans when he stepped into the ring after a no-holds barred fight in what was seen as a symbol of the growing public discontent with his rule.
"The authorities need to take extraordinary steps to get out of this while saving face," said Yevgeny Gontmakher, head of the Centre for Social Policies at the Moscow-based Economics Institute.
"I would not want to be in their place but they walked into this and ignored the warnings."
The prime minister's spokesman Dmitry Peskov, speaking to AFP, insisted the protests reflected an opinion of a minority of Russians, while Putin still has the support of a majority.
Putin dismissed the first rally as insignificant, saying he was learning to play ice hockey and compared the white ribbons opposition supporters pin to their lapels as a symbol of their protest to condoms.
In scenes unthinkable just one month ago, the protesters on Saturday in response derided Putin with racy slogans. Condoms were distributed while one sign said: "We know you want a third time. But we have a headache!"
"I do not know what will happen next but March 4 will not be the way it was planned," commentator Olga Bakushinskaya wrote in a blog post. "Russians take a long time to harness a carriage but they ride fast."
© 2011 AFP