* Conservatives are gaining upper hand over liberals
* Putin struggles to prevent slide into recession
* Sign oligarchs are nervous, threat from protesters
By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW, May 10 Angry and intimidating, Russian
President Vladimir Putin sat alone at the head of a long table
this week scolding his government for failing to carry out his
Ministers squirmed in their seats on each side of the table
as Putin humiliated them one-by-one in images shown repeatedly
by state television. One dared to answer back. The next day he
was out of a job.
The tactic of showing television footage of Putin ruthlessly
in command is typical of his long rule, intended to burnish his
image as the ultimate arbiter. But Wednesday's dismissal of
Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov, once a trusted aide, has
underlined how isolated Putin is a year into his third term.
Surkov was, until December 2011, a member of Putin's inner
circle, the architect of the political system that concentrated
power in the president's hands.
He was demoted from the Kremlin to the government when
anti-Putin protests challenged the very foundations of the
structure he had created. He had become more distant from Putin,
often speaking out of turn.
Since Surkov's departure from the presidential staff,
veterans of the spy and security agencies and other
conservatives known as the "siloviki", or men of power, have
gained the upper hand in shaping Putin's thinking and are behind
what the opposition sees as a Soviet-style clampdown on dissent.
Putin has in the past two years been abandoned by, forced
out or become distant from the more liberal thinkers who once
influenced him, leaving him politically isolated as his
popularity wanes and the economy slides towards recession.
"I won't say that power is slipping from his hands but he is
not as strong as he was," said a source once close to the
Kremlin and the government. "At the start of the 2000s, he was a
unifying figure. He is no longer that."
SHIFT IN KREMLIN TACTICS
Surkov's initial fall from grace as the top Kremlin
strategist was a result of the emergence of a protest movement,
born out of anger over alleged electoral fraud, which Putin
initially appeared poorly prepared for.
His replacement by a less sophisticated operator, Vyacheslav
Volodin, heralded a shift in policy towards anti-Western
rhetoric and tougher tactics against the protesters.
It is a trend that has continued as Putin sought to tighten
his grip on power by rebalancing the forces around him after a
drop in support, although the drop was not dramatic enough to
prevent him winning a presidential election in March last year.
The choice of Dmitry Medvedev to replace Putin as president
in 2008, when constitutional term limits forced the former KGB
spy to step aside temporarily, had appeared to secure a role for
the relatively liberal reformers.
But the man Medvedev saw off in 2008, ex-KGB former defence
minister Sergei Ivanov, is now in the ascendancy as head of
Putin's Kremlin administration.
Alexander Bastrykin, the head the government's powerful
Investigative Committee, which is sometimes likened to the FBI
is another influential figure.
Igor Sechin, another ex-KGB conservative aide who has long
been at Putin's side, also has Putin's ear as head of state oil
major Rosneft, which has grown under his tutelage into
the world's largest publicly listed energy company by output.
More liberal reformers, such as Putin's finance minister
until September 2011, have been sidelined. Although Kudrin, a
darling of the West, is widely believed to still have an
informal line to the Kremlin, he has proved reluctant to rejoin
a team he portrays as taking Russia in the wrong direction.
Other economic liberals who featured prominently in Putin's
first spell as president, from 2000 until 2008, but are now gone
include economic aide Andrei Illarionov and Mikhail Kasyanov,
his first prime minister who is now in the opposition.
German Gref, the architect of liberal market reforms during
Putin's first term, no longer has a direct control over policy
although his position as head of state-controlled Sberbank
means he has not entirely left the fold.
Medvedev himself has watched meekly as the more liberal of
his reforms as president have been reversed by Putin and his own
position is in danger as prime minister.
The more hawkish forces in the Kremlin have been repeatedly
undermined him and his team, and Putin could make his long-term
ally the ultimate scapegoat if the economic slowdown that has
taken growth from 5 percent in early 2012 to just 1 percent in
the first quarter of this year continues.
The clearest sign of the shift towards the more conservative
forces has been the increasingly tough approach towards the
protest movement, mainly led by middle-class residents of
Rusisa's biggest cities.
In the 12 months since Putin has been back in the Kremlin,
parliament has passed a series of laws which his opponents say
are repressive and meant to silence them. Several opposition
leaders, including anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, face
the threat of jail over what they say are trumped-up charges.
The protests have dwindled but at a price to Putin's image.
"I remember the times of (Soviet dictator Josef) Stalin very
well. I should say our current leaders are returning to those
times by putting pressure on any sign of civil activity," said
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a veteran human rights campaigner.
Putin denies taking Russia back towards Stalinism but said
in his annual television question-and-answer session last month
that the country needed order and discipline - words often used
by Stalin's admirers in Russia.
Like this week's choreographed dressing down of the
government, the televised phone-in, which this year lasted a
record 4 hours and 47 minutes, looked outdated, critics said.
Although Putin has often used the format to show his command
of facts and figures and his readiness to address Russians'
everyday problems, there are signs that it is no longer enough
to keep people happy.
To regain popularity, Putin has shifted towards patriotism,
to appeal to the blue-collar workers in the provinces who are
his traditional support base, and to populist economic measures.
Now 60, he issued a series of decrees on taking office as
president a year ago which promised more kindergartens, housing
and other potentially costly measures to the budget.
But they have not been carried out by the cash-strapped
government - it was Surkov's role to oversee their
implementation - and dissatisfaction is starting to grow,
Putin has talked often about the need to reduce Russia's
heavy reliance on exports of energy and other natural resources,
leaving it vulnerable to a drop in the price of oil, but has
avoided doing so because of the risk to his popularity,
potentially hitting voters in the pocket.
"There are great reserves of patience in Russia," Lev
Gudkov, head of the Levada Center, an independent polling group
that says Putin's ratings are now much lower than at their peak
before the 2008-09 financial crash, said this week.
In a recent Levada poll, 41 percent did not want Putin to
run again for president in 2018, against 28 percent who did.
"People are dissatisfied ... you can campaign, try to
convince and make promises, but they feel the decline in living
standards," Gudkov said. "Regardless of the propaganda, and the
populist statements, Putin's social (support) base is falling."
Putin's first presidential term from 2000 until 2004 was
marked by the consolidation of power by reining in rebellious
regions such as Chechnya and clipping the wings of super-rich
businessmen who had amassed power as well as money.
His second term until 2008 saw an oil-fuelled economic boom
and a tightening of his political control, including the
dismembering of the huge Yukos oil firm and its transfer into
mostly state hands after the jailing of its owner, Mikhail
Khodorkovsky, who had clashed with Putin.
Putin's spell as prime minister until last year was largely
spent dealing with the recovery from the 2008-09 economic crisis
and continuing to pull the strings as prime minister, to smooth
the way for his return to the Kremlin.
The fourth stage of his domination of Russia has, critics
say, been marked by political and economic stagnation.
Putin has sought to win over voters by promising to get
tough on corruption and taking steps to force government
officials and members of parliament to keep their money in
Russia rather than abroad.
He sacked Defence Minister Pavel Serdyukov, a long-term
ally, last November after an investigation into the illegal sale
of ministry property.
Polls regularly show corruption is the problem which
Russians most want Putin to resolve, but also indicate they have
little confidence that he will be able or willing to do so. Some
see him as one of the creators and beneficiaries of the
political system, as part of the problem.
His efforts to ensure Russians keep their money in Russia
has also started to unsettle the wealthy businessmen on whom he
depends. The risk of tightening legislation to limit the
transfer of money abroad is that he discourages businessmen from
keeping it in the country in the first place.
Capital flight has continued and some tycoons, such as
telecoms-to-banking oligarch Mikhail Fridman, are threatening to
diversify abroad, basing their companies outside Russia and
taking their money with them.
Many Russia analysts regard the threat posed to Putin by the
potential loss of support from the wealthy tycoons known as
oligarchs as much bigger than the dangers he faces from the
political opposition, which is easier for him to control.
Most observers expect Putin to serve out his presidency but
also say his ability to secure another six-year term in 2018
will recede unless he starts pulling Russia out of stagnation.