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Is The Putin Magic Gone?

  • Brian Whitmore
  • Tom Balmforth

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting at the Government House on December 5.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting at the Government House on December 5.

PRAGUE/MOSCOW -- Prime Minister (and national leader) Vladimir Putin has fallen to Earth. President Dmitry Medvedev looks weaker than ever. And State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov may be out of a job.

The December 4 legislative elections, in which the ruling United Russia party struggled to hang onto its parliamentary majority and decisively lost the two-thirds supermajority it has enjoyed since 2007, was a watershed and a wake-up call for the ruling elite -- which for the first time since Putin came to power more than a decade ago is finding itself on the defensive.

The first casualty may be Gryzlov, a leading figure in United Russia who has served as speaker of the State Duma since 2003. Russian media cited unidentified party sources as saying that in the wake of the elections, Gryzlov would likely be removed.

But analysts say the regime's problems appear to run deeper and cannot be fixed by cosmetic changes such as replacing a secondary figure like Gryzlov.

The election result pierced the air of omnipotence that Putin has carefully cultivated over his decade in power and could potentially move the country into uncharted territory.

"Putin has ceased to be a magician wielding a magic wand," Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin explains. "His popularity is declining and this creates an unusual and potentially dangerous situation. We have never seen Putin deal with political adversity. We've seen him when his popularity was rising. We've seen him when his rating was at its peak. But we've never seen him when his rating was falling."

More Difficult To Rule

Putin is still all but assured victory in the March presidential election, when he will seek to return to the Kremlin after a four-year break. Despite his falling poll numbers, he remains the most popular politician in the country.

But in his second stint as president Putin will be faced with an elite that is more divided, a civil society that is more assertive, and an economic situation fraught with uncertainty. All of this will make it much more difficult for Putin to rule in the authoritarian, top-down fashion he is comfortable with.

Oreshkin says the new reality leaves Putin's vaunted "power vertical" severely weakened and leaves him with a stark choice: Negotiate a more pluralistic system or rely on force and oppression to maintain the old one.

"It is the beginning of the end, but he will fight to preserve the system," Oreshkin says. "And it is unlikely that he will try to negotiate and find a compromise with other political forces. He is more likely to try to tighten the screws."

If the election results left Putin weakened, they have all but emasculated Medvedev, who just months ago was being touted by supporters as a reformist leader poised to preside over an economic and political modernization of the country.

Nothing But A Placeholder

All that talk ended, of course, after the September 24 United Russia congress, when Medvedev announced that he would not stand for a second term as president. The carefully orchestrated move confirmed what many suspected all along: that Medvedev's presidency was nothing but a placeholder designed to enable Putin's return to the Kremlin.

Big losers: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (right) and Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov in Moscow on October 18.

Big losers: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (right) and Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov in Moscow on October 18.

It also left his supporters, both in the elite and in society, deeply disillusioned.

"Medvedev damaged his reputation after he willingly showed himself to be a second-rate politician," Oreshkin says.

Medvedev was given consolation prizes for stepping aside. He occupied the top spot on the United Russia party list for the election and he was assured that once he leaves the presidency he would have Putin's support to serve as prime minister.

The job switch with Putin, which looked like a cynical ploy to many, only deepened the disappointment in Medvedev. And the top spot on the party list meant that, to a degree, he can be blamed for United Russia's weak showing.

"When Medvedev was chosen to head the list, many hoped this would get United Russia more votes. But this did not happen," says Sergei Mikheyev, the general director of the Center for Political Assessments.

'But For How Long?'

The disappointing election results only heightened impressions of Medvedev's political impotence, which does not bode well for his prospects to serve as a strong -- or even effective -- prime minister.

"Medvedev will be prime minister, but the question is for how long," Mikheyev says. "This issue will be debated, and it will depend on the economy and how he approaches the job."

The big winner? Sergei Mironov

The big winner? Sergei Mironov

If Putin, Medvedev, and Gryzlov have all been weakened by the election results, many observers are pointing to former Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov as the vote's surprising winner.

Mironov's center-left A Just Russia party was originally established as a pro-Kremlin group. But the party became more of a true opposition force after Mironov fell out with United Russia and was removed as speaker of the upper house.

After losing Kremlin support, it looked like the party's political fate was sealed and Mironov was destined for the political wilderness. But instead, as the party reinvented itself as an opposition force, its prospects rose markedly. In the end, the party won 64 seats in the 450-seat Duma, nearly double the 38 it won as a pro-Kremlin party in the 2007 elections.

The biggest thing the authorities lost in the December 4 elections, Moscow-based political analyst Kirill Rogov told RFE/RL's Russian Service, is their legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

"There is formal legitimacy that comes from the Electoral Commission saying what percent you won, but there is also real legitimacy, which is in people's consciousness," Rogov says. "It is people's trust in what the authorities tell them. It is impossible to ignore this. It influences the public. It influences the elite. It influences the bureaucracy. The legitimacy of the authorities is falling step by step."

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report
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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at balmfortht@rferl.org

     

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