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The Kremlin's Thermidor

President Vladimir Putin attending an awards ceremony for achievements in culture and science in the Kremlin on June 12
President Vladimir Putin attending an awards ceremony for achievements in culture and science in the Kremlin on June 12
It's been a week on steroids for the State Duma as the lower house sprinted through legislation establishing tighter regulation of the Internet, placing tough new restrictions on NGOs, and reinstating criminal penalties for libel.

All three bills appear designed to stifle a resurgent opposition and restore the unrestricted and uncontested dominance of President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin after more than six months of noisy street protests and open dissent.

And lawmakers clearly wanted to get the controversial Kremlin-backed bills off their docket before the summer recess kicks in.

But while what Russians call "cucumber season" may be upon us, Kremlin watchers say this year the traditional July-August lull in the political season is but a brief pause before the political maelstrom that is expected to engulf the political class in the autumn.

At the root of the looming crisis, political analyst Kirill Rogov wrote this week in the daily "Vedomosti," is that while a clear majority of Russians accept Putin as the country's legitimate ruler, an equally clear majority -- as well as a sizeable chunk of the elite -- does not want him to rule in the heavy-handed and unaccountable way he did during his first stint in the Kremlin. But Putin seems determined to do so anyway.

"Putin is officially back in the Kremlin, but he has not received the mandate of his previous presidency's strength," Rogov wrote. "Meanwhile, Putin intends to rule as if he has received it. This is what is driving Russia's unfolding political crisis, which has not yet entered its acute phase."

In a thorough and thoughtful piece, Rogov catalogues the "signs and symptoms" of confrontation on the horizon.

At the top of his list is Putin's standing among the public. True, he remains relatively popular, Rogov argues, but he no longer has the reservoir of public support to be the omnipotent figure who lorded over Russia from 2000-08.

"Putin's approval-to-disapproval ratio is approximately 65:35 or slightly below," Rogov wrote. "This might be considered as an excellent result for any president of a democratic country. But it is not acceptable for 'the king.'... Actually, Putin has lost this."

Likewise, Rogov notes the precipitous decline in United Russia's standing. This is hardly news, but the figures are striking. The ruling party, whose dominance was not so long ago compared to that of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, is now polling less than 40 percent in 32 regions -- and is less than 35 percent in 16 of them. In Moscow, United Russia is languishing below 30 percent.

The gap between Putin's inner circle and Moscow itself -- both the city's residents and the local political elite -- is also widening. Rogov writes that while about half of 1 percent of the capital's population regularly attends opposition rallies, more than half of them support the protesters and two-thirds oppose recent legislation cracking down on unsanctioned rallies.

And while the series of repressive laws that have followed Putin's return have clearly been an attempt by the Kremlin to reassert control and bring the rebellious part of the elite and society into line, in the current environment, Rogov argues, they will likely have the opposite effect.

"Functionally, a 'reaction' is the logical stage of a political crisis caused by the ruling regime's gradual loss of legitimacy," he wrote. "Clear signs have emerged of the regime's weakening and have set the stage for a split in the elite. Supporting the regime no longer looks like a win-win proposition. This 'reaction' is the regime's response."

And this reaction, Rogov adds, will cost Putin support among the public and the elite. He notes that Putin's firm supporters (as opposed to his overall approval rating) now number between 15 and 20 percent of the population. Between 40 and 45 percent conditionally support the president. His hardcore opponents number about 15 percent, with an additional 15 to 20 percent "sharing the anti-Putin mood to some extent."

"The current hard-line policy may, in the short run, have the positive effect of disciplining the elite," Rogov wrote. "But at the same time it may lead to the reduction of the zone of conditional support for Putin among the public and expand the proportion of those who sympathize with demands for his resignation."

Rogov predicts that this trend in public opinion should become clear in the autumn and will have the effect of turning a decisive portion of the elite against Putin and the ruling circle.

I found Rogov's argument persuasive, particularly considering the political calendar.

Local elections are scheduled across Russia in October and, given United Russia's weak standing, they will most likely further expose the regime's unpopularity.

Moreover, sometime in the autumn, the authorities are also scheduled to tackle a series of reforms of Russia's creaky social welfare architecture that are bound to be unpopular.

And looming over everything, of course, is the ever-present threat of an economic crisis from either volatile energy prices or contagion from the eurozone -- or both.

-- Brian Whitmore

(NOTE: Tune in to the July 13 edition of "The Power Vertical Podcast" for a discussion of the issues raised in this post.)

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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