Preview: Battles loom as Putin returns as Russian president

MOSCOW Thu May 3, 2012 6:58pm IST

Russian Prime Minister and president-elect Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting at the residence at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow April 18, 2012. REUTERS/Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Pool

Russian Prime Minister and president-elect Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting at the residence at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow April 18, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Pool

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin will need to show less of his old swagger, master the art of compromise with opponents and restore control over battling clans if he is to do more than just see out his six-year term as Russia's president.

No longer the all-powerful leader who stepped aside in 2008 after eight years as president, Putin must assert his authority quickly after he is sworn in on Monday if he is to prevent his third spell in the Kremlin being his last.

But despite being threatened by the biggest protests since he rose to power in 2000, there are few signs of change in a man who will turn 60 in October and was brought up in the Soviet era, worked as a KGB spy and has built a political system that allows him personally to dominate almost every walk of life.

Any failure to demonstrate he is capable of adapting his style to push through change in Russia could herald political and economic stagnation and persuade his powerful backers in business and political circles to start grooming a successor.

"There's no sign the elites have abandoned him, but I think they wobbled when the protests were in full swing so he has to tread carefully," said a senior Western executive in Moscow.

Putin also has to quell rivalries in his own camp, including between long-serving oil tsar Igor Sechin and Dmitry Medvedev, the uncharismatic outgoing president who is set to become prime minister next week in a job swap with his mentor and ally.

Conservatives and liberals are battling for positions in the new cabinet under Medvedev, although the lineup will be chosen by Putin, a decision that will indicate how determined he and Medvedev are to make reforms to improve the investment climate.

"Medvedev does not look like a man ready to create a strong government. We seem to have a government split in two," said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former political adviser to Medvedev.

Medvedev and Sechin, a first deputy premier, do not get on, sources close the government say. Sechin has asserted himself by masterminding two oil exploration deals in the past few months involving state oil company Rosneft (ROSN.MM).

"Medvedev may be prime minister but, whatever title Sechin gets, he is certainly going to remain an important player for Putin," said one source who has dealt closely with the government in recent months.

Other choices over whether liberals or conservatives fill economic posts will go some way to determining the pace of reforms to reduce the state's role in the economy and sell stakes in state companies under a privatisation programme.

NO MORE MACHO STUNTS

Putin had hoped for a triumphant return after four years as prime minister in which he kept his role as Russia's supreme leader and helped guide the country of more than 140 million through the global 2008-09 economic crisis.

But after years of little more than token opposition in a parliament led by his own party, he now faces opponents outside the mainstream political system who have been emboldened by the biggest protests since he rose to power in 2000.

Gone are the choreographed macho antics that made Putin hugely popular at his peak in Russia, such as horse-riding bare chested and shooting a tiger with a tranquiliser gun.

But harder to shake off will be his habit of seeking total control and learning to cope with political opponents and a middle-class demanding more political freedom.

"To a great extent he symbolises the past, at least the last 12 years. For me he doesn't seem like a man of the future," said Dmitry Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Centre think tank.

The opposition will chip away at his authority by contesting local elections, even though the big protests from December to March, sparked by anger over alleged electoral fraud, have faded and no one has emerged as a genuine challenger to Putin.

The $1.9 trillion economy is in better shape than in most European countries but is vulnerable to any change in the price of oil, Russia's main export commodity.

The budget, meanwhile, is under pressure from Putin's lavish election spending promises.

Putin has said he wants to attract more foreign investment by improving the business climate, reduce corruption and red tape, and end Russia's heavy dependence on energy exports. He has not spelled out how he will do this.

LITTLE ENTHUSIASM AMONG VOTERS

Putin is likely, as in the past, to use tough anti-Western rhetoric in the foreign policy arena to drum up support if times get tough in Russia. But he has never yielded his strong influence over foreign policy as premier, so a major policy shift is unlikely.

The most likely source of contention is a row with the United States and NATO over anti-missile defence in Europe, but NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Thursday he remained hopeful agreement could be reached with Moscow.

Putin has responded to the opposition protests by allowing limited electoral reforms and making it easier to register political parties. Further reforms and gestures to the opposition are likely if he is to stay in power.

"He is returning to a very different Russia to the one he left four years ago. His instinct for controlling every aspect of economic, social and political life simply won't work," said political analyst Boris Makarenko.

"He has to make best use of the reduced power and resources still available to him and that means using a policy of divide and rule, and playing his opponents off against the other. If he starts from the assumption that he will not be easily re-elected in six years, it will help him."

Despite a suggestion by Medvedev that he and his mentor are now here for "the long term", talk has faded of Putin seeking re-election at the end of his term in 2018 and becoming the Kremlin's longest-serving ruler since Josef Stalin.

Far from being hailed as a hero whose return will save the nation, Putin more often attracts indifference or outright hostility these days in the big cities, even though he won almost 64 percent of votes in the March 4 presidential election.

"Putin's coming back but who cares? It'll just be the same as it always was," said Larissa Kovalyova, a 36-year-old housewife doing her shopping in Moscow.

Vladimir Anokhin, a 71-year-old pensioner, said: "What difference will Putin make? Look at the problems in Greece, Italy and Spain. It will end up badly for us as well. He won't be able to stop that happening."

(Reporting By Timothy Heritage)

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