The Moscow Times reports:
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s reputation as a Teflon leader is showing scratches as some Russians start to see a growing disconnect between the realities of the financial crisis and Putin’s public posture as the nation’s savior.
Posters openly insulting Putin were among those waved at a rally of thousands of motorists against a hike in import duties for used cars in Vladivostok for the past two weekends. Earlier, only radical members from the banned National Bolshevik Party had dared to attack Putin in public.
For the first time since Putin stepped down as president in May, Duma deputies on Wednesday called for Putin to be summoned to explain why the country posted a sharp decline in industrial output in November. The motion by Communist deputies was axed by the Putin-led United Russia party.
Political commentators who earlier refrained from criticizing Putin are now openly attacking him in Russian print, radio and online media.
The days of Putin being considered a political “sacred cow” were numbered when he left the Kremlin, but the financial crisis has greatly accelerated the process, political analysts said Thursday.
It is the seat in the Kremlin that is sacred, not the occupant and his powers, said Sergei Markov, a United Russia deputy in the Duma and a Kremlin-connected spin doctor.
And the crisis naturally pushes people to speak up louder for their interests, he said.
Tatyana Stanovaya of the Center for Political Technologies said public respect and trust for Putin were part of a “social contract” in which Putin’s role was to provide stability, make sure living standards improved and “tease America from time to time.”
Now, in an environment of salary cuts, job losses and soaring prices, people are growing discontented with the man who had assumed the role of the country’s shepherd, she said.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov could not be reached for comment Thursday, Friday or Monday.
No figures on the public’s trust in Putin have been released since October, when state-run VTsIOM placed it at 59 percent.
But a survey by the independent Levada Center released last week indicated that the number of people who believe the country is headed in the wrong direction has jumped from 24 percent in September to 40 percent this month.
The number of people who believe the country is moving in the right direction fell from 61 percent to 43 percent.
The Dec. 12-15 survey of 1,600 people in 46 regions had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
The survey’s finding that more Russians have faith in the government than those who don’t indicates that people still trust Putin. But when the people understand that the government is effectively Putin, he will become a source of despair rather than hope, said Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst with Merkator, a research center.
“Things will get worse when the gap between what he promises on television and what happens in real life grows wider,” Oreshkin said.
In the past several weeks, Putin has publicly promised financial assistance to virtually every segment of society, from pensioners and the unemployed to bankers and industrialists, in the form of direct cash payments, fiscal benefits or tax cuts.
But the regions have not rushed to join Putin’s efforts in cutting taxes or freezing planned tariff hikes for communal services.
This will leave an impression among Russians that they are being manipulated, and Putin’s “untouchable” image will suffer, Stanovaya said.
Putin has taken care to protect his image from the very beginning of his rise to power. Shortly after he became president in 2000, the Kremlin took over control of all the national television channels, turning them into the effective propaganda tools.
Last week, VTsIOM released a study that said television is the most trusted source of information among Russians, with 70 percent of respondents making that assertion. Fifty percent said they trusted information from the print media, while 26 percent trusted friends and relatives.
No national television channels reported about the motorist protests on Dec. 14 and last weekend, infuriating many, who expressed their anger in the Russian blogosphere and through phone calls to radio talk shows. Among the signs carried by protesters were “Putin, we are sick of you. Get sacked!” and “Mr. Putin, you ride in a Mercedes. Why not a Volga? Aren’t you a patriot?”
On a popular morning show on Serebryany Dozhd radio, well-connected and high-flying host Vladimir Solovyov, who has been generally loyal to Putin in his remarks, lashed out at him and his Cabinet almost daily last week.
Political analysts Leonid Gontmakher and Oreshkin, who never belonged to the opposition camp, openly criticized Putin on the opinion pages of The Moscow Times last week.
Putin as president showed a remarkable ability to distance himself from the country’s problems, thanks in part to fawning coverage by state-controlled television. He has never been shy about assigning blame to others. As president, he frequently dressed down government officials in front of the television cameras.
Now, as the crisis starts to take its toll on the well-being of common Russians, most of Putin’s recent rhetoric has been directed at the United States, which he has accused of causing the global financial crisis through irresponsible fiscal policies.
Both Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have tiptoed around acknowledging that any domestic factors might have contributed to the national economic slowdown.
It remains unclear whether Putin’s popularity will survive the crisis and allow him to run for the presidency in 2012, should he decide to do so.
“Instead of trusting in him as a savior, people could trust him as a devoted fighter against the crisis,” said Markov, the Duma deputy.
He said that even if Putin’s achievements on this front turned out to be modest, people would value him for his aspirations and tough leadership style.
Stanovaya said people would cling to Putin because there were no alternatives after an eight-year presidency in which political and social activism were strongly suppressed.
The country also lacks an appealing alternative ideology that could help such a leader to emerge, because most Russians do not want to return to Communist-like totalitarianism and have bad memories of the liberal reforms of the 1990s, Markov said.
Oreshkin noted that most critical comments in the print and online media are directed against Putin but avoid attacking Medvedev, in a sign that the political and business elite are divided between the two.
‘We see a cracking in the consensus of the elite. It looks like the previous consensus was glued together by high oil prices,” Oreshkin said.