Putin Strengthens Power at Cost of Popular Support; Takes Hits for Pension Reform
Byline: David R. Sands, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
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. …