MOSCOW (Reuters) - Large photographs of happy young children playing against brightly colored backgrounds decorate a hoarding blocking off a central Moscow square.
Behind the innocent-looking billboards, critics say, lies a hint of the fear stalking Russia’s rulers. Their worry? That the strong state they cherish is more vulnerable than it looks.
Outwardly Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a tower of strength. The country’s undisputed ruler has spent the past 10 years -- first as president, then as prime minister -- consolidating power, beefing up the state and building prosperity.
Opinion polls show that Putin remains far more popular than any other politician. Russia’s opposition parties are marginalized, fragmented and weak. Critical voices are few. The mainstream media are relentlessly loyal.
Putin’s press chief Dmitry Peskov says the prime minister inherited a country in ruins when he became president in 2000 and has presided over a steady build-up in incomes.
“WORKAHOLIC” PRIME MINISTER
“The Prime Minister continues to be a workaholic,” he said. “He feels responsible for all the processes he launched...he uses the potential of the premiership 100 percent.”
Though he avoids commenting on the issue, Putin is widely expected to return to the presidency at elections in 2012 for a fresh six-year term.
Olga Kryshtanovskaya, an expert on the Russian elite and member of the ruling United Russia party, estimates the odds of a third Putin presidency at 70 percent.
Aided by supportive media, the benefits of office and a lack of credible opponents, the former KGB agent is likely to win an overwhelming victory, shunting aside his loyal junior partner in the ruling “tandem,” President Dmitry Medvedev.
Russian business leaders and officials already describe the 2012 election as “completely predictable” -- in their eyes a positive thing, because they fear sudden change.
Stability is the mantra repeated time and again by the prime minister and his supporters.
They hail the stability Putin has given Russia, the order he has imposed on its once-turbulent politics and its economy, which crashed in 1998 but limped through the 2008/9 crisis without a currency collapse, a run on banks or mass unemployment.
NO “UKRAINIAN SCENARIO” IN RUSSIA
Putin justifies his political legacy -- the scrapping of elected mayors and governors, the democratic opposition pushed out of parliament and curbs on the media -- as necessary to avoid a “Ukrainian scenario” -- Kremlin code for chaos.
State news channel Rossiya 24 runs a regular item at the end of news bulletins called “Without Commentary,” often featuring footage of riots, disasters, misery or disorder in a foreign land. The subliminal message: life is better in Russia.
But if Russia is so stable, critics ask, why did Moscow authorities erect the hoarding featuring the young children -- allegedly for the construction of a previously unannounced underground car park -- and block off the Mayakovsky square which was a venue for monthly protests by rights activists?
Why, opposition journalists ask, do phalanxes of Moscow riot police supported by dogs regularly break up small opposition demonstrations and drag participants off to waiting vans, even though only a few hundred people turn up?
Why does the Kremlin’s political mastermind, deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, ensure overwhelming victories for Putin’s United Russia party in almost every municipal, regional and national election, even when it damages Russia’s image?
Why is Putin’s image so carefully burnished by his minders, with the premier appearing in tightly scripted and amply broadcast encounters with rappers, intellectuals, car workers, fire-fighters, Pacific grey whales and Arctic Polar bears?
Peskov says that Putin wants to be a “socially oriented Prime Minister with a socially oriented budget” but there are other ways of explaining Putin’s populism.
PUTIN’S HIGH RATING
“Putin’s high rating doesn’t mean there is such a great love for him,” Lev Gudkov, the head of Russia’s leading independent opinion pollster Levada Center said. “It’s more a lack of alternatives and a general indifference.”
Russia has other worries too. Constant official boasting about military might hides, analysts say, the reality: the country’s Soviet-era military remains woefully under-trained and under-equipped for modern warfare.
The economy, despite constant pronouncements about the need for diversification and modernization, still depends almost entirely on volatile raw material prices. The same goes for government revenues.
Ironically, Putin’s obsession with stability and his tight control of Russia may have created a blind alley from which the country cannot easily escape.
“Putin is the ultimate arbiter and the whole system depends on him,” one Western ambassador says. “It cannot function properly without him and that is a major risk in the long term.”
Russia’s business elite feel the same way.
“Putin is an enormously skilful operator,” one oligarch said, speaking on condition he was not identified. “You always leave a meeting with him feeling completely satisfied, feeling he is totally on your side. Later you find out how far he actually agreed with you.”
MEDVEDEV -- JUST GOOD INTENTIONS?
Many believe Putin’s choice in 2008 of his long-term ally Medvedev as his successor was a deliberate attempt to set Russia on a path to faster economic reform, more efficient government and to make the country more appealing to foreign investors.
But although he has achieved a “reset” of relations with the United States, at home Medvedev has so far failed to deliver much more than good intentions, critics say.
And if Putin returns to the Kremlin in 2012 for up to two six-year terms, detractors say Russia’s political system could ossify to a point where an orderly handover of power in 2024 -- when Putin will turn 72 -- becomes almost impossible.
Comparisons with the “era of stagnation” in the 1970s under aging former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev are already multiplying in Russian opposition media.
What are the alternatives?
The main officially tolerated opposition, the Communists, are gradually dying out and there is virtually no constituency in Russia for Western-style liberal democracy.
This leads observers such as author Dmitry Bykov to conclude that if Putin’s system is unable to reform itself from the top down, then the country could fall prey to far-right extremism.
As the editor of one major state broadcaster puts it: “The only political force in Russia today which has the strength and the national organization to challenge Putin is the far right.”
A former ambassador in Moscow from a Western power sums it up: “You may think Putin is anti-Western and hostile to free markets. But he is far more liberal than a lot of the people who stand behind him. Be careful for what you wish for.”
Editing by Janet McBride
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