MOSCOW -- The Kremlin is moving to bring next year's parliamentary elections forward and set up snap gubernatorial votes in several provinces this year, maneuvering that analysts say shows the authorities fear a deepening recession could weaken them and galvanize the opposition.
The State Duma elections in December 2011 catalyzed the largest show of dissent in Vladimir Putin's 15-year rule and authorities propose moving the 2016 poll from December to September, shortly after the August lull when political life shuts down as many Russians head to the dacha or abroad.
The opposition has united in the Democratic Coalition cobbled together in the wake of prominent politician Boris Nemtsov's assassination in February, hoping to finally establish a beachhead in the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.
But Kremlin foes will find it hard to campaign in the summer despite grim economic forecasts -- a big reason, analysts say, for the mounting effort to move the Duma elections from December 2016 to September.
In a sign that the election calendar change could be a done deal fairly soon, Putin ally Sergei Naryshkin, the speaker of the Duma, was quoted by Russian news agencies on June 1 as saying that there was a "legal basis for moving the date of the elections."
Naryshkin said such a shift would not violate the constitution but "must be done through legislation" -- which poses no problem because of the four parties now in the Duma, only the Communists oppose the idea, and they do not have enough votes to block it.
Naryshkin said the change would be "perfectly reasonable" because parliament considered the following year's budget in the autumn, suggesting it would be better not to have a lame-duck chamber tackling that task.
It's The Economy...
Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst who heads the Mercator Group think tank, says the real motive is "the worsening economy and the expectation that voters will grow disgruntled with politics."
The Kremlin's reasoning, he says, is that lower turnout at the end of summer will make it easier for the authorities to draw on reliable "administrative resources" -- the levers held by regional officials and the ruling United Russia party -- to massage the vote.
As the plan to bring the election forward began to take shape last month, opposition leader Aleksei Navalny cast it as evidence that the united opposition front formed following Nemtsov's brazen killing was making the authorities nervous.
Battered by last year's plunge in world oil prices and a slew of Western sanctions over Moscow's interference in Ukraine, the Russian economy is set to contract by 4.5 percent in 2015 and to shrink again in 2016, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development said in May.
On June 1, longtime former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin warned that "the critical phase of the crisis lies ahead." And an opinion survey released on May 29 by Russian pollster VTsIOM found that Russians' biggest worry is the state of the economy, followed by inflation.
Putin Popular, For Now
Riding high on the Russian takeover of Crimea in March 2014, Putin has so far seemed impervious to the economic downturn. His job-approval rating stood at 86 percent in May, according to the respected Levada polling agency.
But the disconnect between the recession and Putin's ratings is unnerving for the authorities, according to Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank. "It's not clear how long the Crimea action will remain popular," he says. "Maybe people tomorrow will think it was not profitable at all. This rating could fall or start to fall even tomorrow. No one knows when it will happen -- maybe it'll happen in a year's time, maybe in a decade. Or maybe it'll happen tomorrow.
What's more, the Duma and its members are less insulated from the economic downturn than the popular Putin, Oreshkin says. "It will be difficult to hold onto a manageable parliament."
Oreshkin says the procession of regional governors who have resigned this year, seeking to run again in September 2015 and win new terms before economic malaise deepens, belongs to the same trend.
Seven governors -- from the regions of Arkhangelsk, Smolensk, Kostroma, Omsk, Irkutsk, Leningrad, and the head of Kamchatka Krai -- handed their resignations to Putin in May. All seven plan to run on Russia's "united election day" in September.
"The governors think that it will raise their status and will not allow their opponents to prepare their campaigns," says Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation.
He says he does "not yet see signs that the federal authorities are becoming alarmed about the possibility of protests. But that doesn't mean they're not possible."