MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russians are starting to tire of Vladimir Putin’s rule and turning their backs on a venal elite which siphons off the profits of the world’s biggest energy producer, a liberal opposition leader said.
Grigory Yavlinsky, founder of the small Yabloko party which is running against Putin’s United Russia in an election on Sunday, said there were signs of fatigue with the 59-year-old leader who plans to return to the presidency next year.
He acknowledged Putin remained popular, but the prime minister was booed at a recent martial arts fight in Moscow and a November opinion poll put his approval rating at its lowest since 2000.
Yavlinsky said that by turning away from politics, the Russian people were employing a weapon they have used for centuries, against Soviet and Tsarist leaders alike, placing a question mark over Putin’s legitimacy as paramount leader.
“The peculiarity of the Russian people is not that they struggle against the authorities but that they turn away from them and the gulf between them widens to the limit,” Yavlinsky told Reuters in an interview in his cramped Moscow office.
“It is completely obvious to everyone that everything cannot stay as it is. You are spectators at a moment in history when those deep historical shifts are taking place,” he said. “People do not believe in the state. They are not interested.”
Yavlinsky said Putin’s scope for boosting his popularity was limited because expectations had grown along with higher living standards over the last decade.
He dismissed talk of revolution as crude but warned that Russia’s future in its current form would be in doubt if Putin’s return to the Kremlin in a presidential election on March 4 ushered in a period of stagnation.
Yavlinsky said Putin, who ruled as president for eight years until 2008 and has remained Russia’s dominant leader since then as prime minister, had trapped himself at the top of a deeply corrupt political system which only he could rule.
“Putin’s return was the only option. He has created a system where no one but he can be president, a system only he can rule. It is an historical trap,” Yavlinsky said.
A junior champion boxer in Ukraine who found his way to Moscow’s top economics institute, Yavlinsky rose to prominence in the last days of the Soviet Union to work on a reform plan intended to cement the transition to a market economy.
It was never implemented. Fiercely critical of both President Boris Yeltsin and his successor Putin, Yavlinsky ran in the presidential elections of 1996 and 2000, winning 7.3 and 5.8 percent of the vote respectively.
Yavlinsky, 59, said he did not care to talk of polls which forecast his Yabloko party would win no seats in parliament in Sunday’s parliamentary election, in which United Russia is expected to retain its majority in the lower house.
He said the election, in which a party must win at least seven percent of votes to have more than token representation in parliament, could not be fair because there was not a level playing field in terms of media access or funding.
Vote rigging was likely, he said, although President Dmitry Medvedev, who is first on United Russia’s list of candidates, says the party will win fairly.
In an hour-long interview, Yavlinsky dismissed the idea that he was an almost tragic figure in Russian politics whose two decades of arguments for a law-based, tolerant society were viewed as naive by Kremlin leaders and voters alike.
“There is no tragedy,” he said. “We are the last democratic party left.”
Yavlinsky raged against leaders he accused of abandoning their responsibilities for cash in the often rigged sales of state assets after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
“Venality is part of the crisis of our elite,” he said. “Putin is the leader of the corporation: He acts like the head of a major corporation but there is a major difference between a corporation and a country.
“Putin is the source of stability if you understand stability in terms of arbitrary rule,” he said.
A Russian Orthodox believer who keeps a well thumbed bible on his desk under a silver cross, Yavlinsky said he was no soothsayer who could predict Russia’s fate but that the first currents of winds of change could be felt.
He said Russian history had a habit of surprising and that the two miracles of his life were the fall of the Soviet Union and the protests in Ukraine’s 2004-05 Orange Revolution.
Russia’s $1.9 trillion economy has enough reserves to protect itself against the initial shocks of the euro zone debt crisis, he said, but he warned that Russia’s dependence on Europeans energy sales meant a deeper crisis could follow.
“I have one thing to say to Western leaders: ‘Please put your house in order’. I need an example to hold up,” he said.
Yavlinsky said he would only run in the 2012 presidential election if he could unite the opposition behind him.
He came close to tears when asked about the 1994 kidnapping of his piano-playing son, Mikhail, who had three fingers severed and posted to him with a warning to get out of politics.
“He was 23. The fingers were sewn back on but they do not work,” he said. “The price of taking part in politics in Russia is extremely high: your life, your family, everything.”
Reporting By Guy Faulconbridge, editing by Rosalind Russell