As Russia marks 100 days since the return of Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin on Tuesday, there is one thing that his supporters and leaders of the unprecedented protests against his rule agree on – the former KGB officer hasn’t changed in the slightest.
“In essence, nothing has altered as far as Putin’s politics go,” former United Russia lawmaker and Public Chamber member Sergei Markov told RIA Novosti. “Putin said more than once that he would continue to carry out the same policies that voters are familiar with - that’s why they elected him for a third term.”
Markov’s views were echoed in part by opposition figure Ilya Yashin, who served a short jail sentence this summer over attempts to establish an Occupy-style protest camp in downtown Moscow.
“There was some hope before his return that we would see a new Putin, but he has not changed at all,” Yashin said. “Some very naïve people thought we might see something different, but this was just nonsense.”
Putin returned to the presidency in May after being forced to step down in 2008 by a Сonstitution that forbids two consecutive terms of officeб but is silent on subsequent stints. He served four years as prime minister while his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, took up the presidency, but remained by far Russia’s most powerful politician.
Yet Putin’s announcement last fall that he would seek a return to the Kremlin saw a swell of discontent among the country’s nascent middle class, which is desperate for a greater say in the way the country is run. Tens of thousands of people have since taken to the streets on several occasions to protest against Putin’s 12-year rule, with more mass protests expected in Moscow this fall.
Changes to Russia's Constitution mean that Putin, 59, will serve for six years, compared with the previous four-year terms for Russian leaders. The amendment means he could remain in power until 2024, longer than any Russian or Soviet leader since dictator Joseph Stalin.
Tightening the Screws?
A smirking Putin told journalists after his landslide victory in March 4 presidential polls that he would “certainly tighten the screws” on the opposition.
“Don’t relax!” he warned.
And after a swath of controversial laws and legal troubles for protest leaders, Russia’s opposition is convinced that while Putin may have been smiling when he gave his warning, he was dead serious.
“The last three months have seen an increased role for the security services and the persecution of Kremlin critics,” Yashin said. “Everything Putin does is aimed at tightening his grip on power.”
Late last month, prosecutors charged opposition leader Alexei Navalny with large-scale embezzlement in an old case that could see the anti-corruption activist and the most troubling thorn in the Kremlin’s side jailed for up to ten years. Navalny has claimed the criminal case is revenge for his political activities.
The charges against Navalny came as three women from the punk group Pussy Riot face a jail sentence over an anti-Putin protest at Moscow’s largest cathedral in February. The verdict in the controversial trial is set to be announced on Friday.
Other opposition figures to suffer since Putin’s return include socialite turned dissident Ksenia Sobchak, who lost an appeal last month to force investigators to return the $1.5 million seized from her plush Moscow apartment during a raid in June. And opposition lawmaker Gennady Gudkov has claimed he was forced to close his 20-year-old private security firm this summer after pressure from the authorities. Gudkov may also be stripped of his parliamentarian immunity and arrested this fall after investigators accused him of illegal commercial activity.
Putin’s first 100 days in office have also seen the dramatic increase of fines for protest-related offenses and the re-criminalization of libel. The government has also been handed the power to close Web sites damaging to children, a definition its critics say is too wide and open to abuse.
This fall is also expected to see the adoption of a law forcing non-governmental organizations funded from abroad and engaged in politics to declare themselves “foreign agents,” a move that has been sharply criticized both at home and abroad.
“Politically, the past 100 days have been marked by a clear shift to repressive policies,” said analyst Maria Lipman at the Moscow-based Carnegie Center think-tank. “The list is pretty big and it’s getting bigger.”
“Putin’s third presidency has seen him rely more on repression than the manipulative methods that he used to establish control in his first two terms of office,” she added. “This is probably the most graphic example of how Putin’s third term is different from his previous presidencies.”
And independent political analyst Vladimir Slatinov suggested that Putin had overseen a “counter-reform” of Medvedev’s attempts at political liberalization during his time in the Kremlin.
Medvedev, who famously said “freedom is better than non-freedom” at the start of his one-term presidency, eased requirements for the registration of political parties and initiated the return of direct elections for regional governors, albeit with a Kremlin “filter.”
“Fears that we would see a tightening of the screws have been realized,” said Slatinov. “This concerns both laws and the atmosphere, which has become more confrontational.”
But Markov denied Putin was overseeing a crackdown on the opposition, pointing instead to “radical forces serving foreign interests” that were being forced to follow the law. He also said Putin was answering society’s demands for change, with moves such as the loosening of restrictions on party registration and the promised creation of a new “public” national television station.
Next 100 Days
An August survey by the Moscow-based Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) pollster indicated that Putin’s approval ratings were just over 53 percent, a significant decrease from the almost 63 percent he enjoyed in March when he triumphed in the presidential polls. FOM quizzed 3,000 respondents across Russia.
And the next 100 days promise to be a key period for Putin as the opposition prepares for a fall offensive, with nationwide protests planned by the opposition for September and October.
“It’s clear that society has to a certain extent experienced and continues to experience a certain weariness toward Putin and this is something the opposition has tried to play up,” said Alexei Mukhin, head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information.
“To counter this, Putin will need to fulfill his pre-election promises, something he seems to be doing,” he added.
Putin's election campaign saw him make massive promises on spending, including increasing pensions and salaries for government employees, and he will need to find about $170 billion over the next six years to keep those pledges. Failure to do so, analysts say, could see further social unrest.
But some analysts suggested that Putin had ridden out the most potentially hazardous period of the opposition to his rule.
“Putin has managed to boost his legitimacy and the public, including the opposition, has admitted through its clenched teeth that he triumphed at the elections,” said independent political analyst Pavel Svyatenkov. “Putin has seen out the dangerous phase of the political crisis, but the crisis has still not ended.”
Putin also faces the task of beginning to modernize the Russian economy, which depends heavily on revenues from the export of natural gas and oil. Experts say a fall in the energy prices would hit the country hard, especially if the slump is accompanied by a predicted, impending global economic crisis.
“His main task is to move away from the economic model that he himself created in the last 12 years, which implies the Russian economy’s extreme reliance on the export of raw resources to the West,” Svyatenkov added.