Putin needs more than rhetoric to win over weary nation

MOSCOW Wed Dec 12, 2012 6:39am IST

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on the budgets of Russian regions at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi December 4, 2012. REUTERS/Aleksey Nikolskyi/RIA Novosti/Pool

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on the budgets of Russian regions at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi December 4, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Aleksey Nikolskyi/RIA Novosti/Pool

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin will need to mix fresh ideas with his trademark patriotism and tough-guy image on Wednesday when he lays out his plans to a cynical population weary of corruption and poor state services.

Thirteen years after he rose to power, and more than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin still seems to be searching for an overarching idea to unite Russians.

There is no imminent threat to his rule - opposition groups who accuse the authorities of stifling dissent have failed to build enough momentum to pose a serious challenge to the state.

But public confidence is low. While some figures in government have fallen foul of corruption scandals, high-profile probes have not convinced Russians that Putin will uproot rampant graft.

Pressure is growing on the government to translate sky-high oil and gas income into improvements in roads, schools, police, pensions, housing and healthcare that millions find wanting.

Abroad, Putin has sought to revive Russia's 20th century status as a counter-balance to U.S. hegemony, but political experts say Putin's ideological messages are wearing thin.

"There is a gap between the people's pragmatic demands and government attempts to feed them abstract ideologies such as patriotism, anti-Westernism, neo-industrialisation," said analyst Pavel Salin. Citizens "want concrete action, concrete success from government institutions they deal with every day."

Putin is likely to cut a confident figure in Wednesday's annual Kremlin address, nine months after weathering the biggest opposition protests of his rule and winning a third term as president after four years as prime minister.

The speech to lawmakers and a nationwide TV audience comes three days before opponents stage what they hope will be the first big protest in Moscow since September.

He is likely to repeat warnings that demonstrators must abide by the law - appealing to provincial Russians that are his power base - but also needs to win over middle class urbanites who want a stronger voice in politics and fear Russia will stagnate during a new term that may not be his last.

"People want to see promises that salaries will be increased, inflation curbed, a solution to problems with housing, medical care and education and answers to the question of corruption raised by the recent scandals," said Lev Gudkov, director of independent polling agency Levada.

FOREIGN THREAT

Putin has not ruled out seeking another six-year presidential term in 2018 and seems determined to put his stamp on Russia for decades to come.

He has used annual appearances to shape an image of a strong, sharp-minded leader in command of economic facts and figures and with a finger on the pulse of the people.

Putin has called patriotism the answer to the threat of foreign influence and harnessed the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church. He has balanced those messages with calls for tolerance in a nation that has a large Muslim minority and is seeking to suppress an Islamist insurgency in Chechnya.

But he is less popular than during much of his 2000-2008 presidency, when he oversaw spectacular economic growth fuelled by energy exports.

"Putin still presents himself as a decisive politician, the leader of the nation, a macho man, which is no longer adequate," said Gudkov. "These public events are less effective than they used to be."

(Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)

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