- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Russian President Vladimir Putin faces angry street protests, plummeting polls and the threat of a no-confidence vote in parliament — just months after he moved to squelch dissent and concentrate power in the Kremlin.

The botched introduction of a wide-ranging pension reform plan at the start of the year has sent Mr. Putin’s personal approval ratings to the lowest levels of his five-year presidency, polls show this week.

About 42 percent of Russians said they would vote for Mr. Putin if elections were held today, according to a survey released Monday by the Moscow-based Public Opinion Foundation. That number is down from 65 percent in January 2004.

Andrei Milyokhin, director of the ROMIR Monitoring, a Moscow polling institute, said Mr. Putin’s “Teflon cover no longer exists or there are scratches on it in some very serious places.”

Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Moscow think tank Merkator, said Mr. Putin, long the country’s most popular political figure, might have entered “the era of falling political ratings.”

The Kremlin’s drive to centralize power and suppress dissent climaxed with constitutional changes in November, essentially giving Mr. Putin the power to pick the heads of Russia’s 89 regional governments. Human rights and civil liberties groups charged that the Putin government was becoming increasingly authoritarian.

But Russian defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said the concentration of power in Mr. Putin’s hands has made him the direct focus of popular anger when things go wrong.

Mr. Putin’s “personalized style of presidential rule makes the head of state the only source of legitimacy,” Mr. Felgenhauer wrote in a Moscow Times commentary. “Hence, any serious public protest immediately takes the blame to the core of the system, straight to Putin.”

Military veterans and seniors living on state pensions have staged protests across the country since the benefits law was changed Jan. 1.

The reforms, overwhelmingly approved by the State Duma, replace several direct government benefits, including free medicine, cut-rate housing and subsidized public transportation, with straight cash payments to beneficiaries.

Although Mr. Putin ordered an expedited schedule for the new payments, many objected to the loss of in-kind subsidies dating back to the Soviet Union and the early post-Cold War days. Of particular concern to Mr. Putin was the unhappiness among Russia’s 45 million retirees, a key base of support for him with the strong growth of the Russian economy since 2000.

Polls show public confidence has plummeted for the Cabinet of little-known Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, and many expect a shake-up in key ministries.

Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, defending the benefit changes last month, said the street protests were politically inspired.

“The pensioners are just pawns in a political struggle,” he told reporters.

But ROMIR, the polling firm, found that an overwhelming number of retirees opposed the benefits changes, and even younger workers and the well-to-do were hostile to the overhaul.

The public protests also have united Russia’s dispirited opposition parties, from the once-dominant Communists to liberal, pro-market parties such as Yabloko. The opposition had been largely neutralized as pro-Putin forces dominated the Duma.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said last week he had collected enough signatures to force a no-confidence vote for the government in the Duma, which now is debating the benefits policy. Mr. Putin’s allies easily could defeat the resolution, but the exercise would force Mr. Putin to defend the politically unpopular reforms.

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