MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin is looking increasingly out of touch in Russia after the opposition brought tens of thousands of people out onto the streets of Moscow for the second time in two weeks to demand a parliamentary election be re-run.
But the looming New Year holiday in Russia means there is likely to be a pause in the biggest opposition protests since he rose to power 12 years ago and he will hope they will now at least temporarily lose momentum.
The protesters say they are tired of his domination of Russia after eight years as president and now four as prime minister, and suspect the December 4 election, won by his United Russia party, was rigged.
First Putin dismissed the protesters as chattering monkeys financed from abroad, then he backed President Dmitry Medvedev’s proposal for gradual political reform and later the 59-year-old leader had a former KGB spy appointed as Kremlin chief of staff.
The gulf between Putin and many of his people has convinced many that he has lost his popular touch and is refusing to take the protests as seriously as many of his closest allies do as he prepares to reclaim the presidency in an election in March.
“They do not understand,” one person close to policy makers said of Putin and Medvedev. “One is weak and the other does not want to listen, though people have tried to explain the seriousness of the situation.”
That could bode badly for the long-term stability of the world’s biggest country and energy producer.
Opponents say Putin’s inner circle is a small group of former KGB spies, businessmen and Kremlin officials who have little empathy with the Internet-savvy generation of younger, urban Russians who have come out onto the streets this month.
But Putin’s portrayal of the protesters as pawns financed by a foreign power has also contrasted with the conclusions drawn by some of the other men at his court.
Kremlin deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, who helped Putin craft his tightly controlled political system, warned on Friday that some enemies wanted to provoke a revolution but that the protesters were among the best people in society.
“The best part of our society, or rather the most productive part, is demanding respect,” Surkov, one of Putin’s most powerful advisers on domestic policy, told Izvestia. “You cannot simply swipe away their opinions in an arrogant way.”
An even closer Putin ally, former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, joined Saturday’s protest in Moscow, warning that Russia needed much more serious political reforms to ensure a stable development.
“I came today because I do not believe the elections were fair and I believe we need to hold an investigation and punish those responsible up to and including criminal responsibility,” Kudrin, 51, told Reuters at the protest.
“There is a possibility today, without any sort of revolution, to make a transformation to ensure fair elections and real representation in parliament,” said Kudrin, who helped Putin get his first job in the Kremlin in 1996.
But Putin has other powerful advisers too.
Nikolai Patrushev, the powerful head of the Russian security council and former head of the FSB state security service, said this month that Russia should impose “rational regulation” of the Internet.
Another former KGB spy, Sergei Ivanov, was appointed Kremlin chief of staff Thursday and Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, a Putin ally, has voiced concern about the role played by the Internet in the Arab Spring revolts.
Patrushev, 60, Ivanov, 58, and Sechin, 51, are all old friends of Putin and though they may be divided by tactics and court politics, they are ultimately hardliners.
Medvedev, Russia’s 46-year-old iPad-carrying president, may have more sense of the anger against Putin but he is weak, sources close to the situation said.
“Medvedev understands this all a little better because he is a person less prone to conspiratorial theories,” said a source with close ties to the leadership, adding that Russia’s leaders were hoping the protests would burn themselves out.
“Putin has realized his popularity is declining,” the source said.
For Putin, who has used his popularity to justify his plan to run for the presidency in the March 4 presidential election, that may be a hard thing to accept.
Putin still remains Russia’s most popular politician and though his ratings are high by Western standards, they are low according to Putin’s own expectations.
Russia’s biggest independent pollster, Levada-Center, said 63 percent of Russians approved of his activities as prime minister in a poll carried out on Dec 16-20.
But that is just three percentage points above the lowest level since August 2000, when he was dogged by the botched reaction to a naval disaster that killed all 118 crewmen aboard the submarine Kursk.
“They are worrying and they are nervous,” said Mikhail Kasyanov, who served as prime minister under Putin for four years before joining the opposition. “And they really do have something to be worried and nervous about.”
Putin seems intent on riding out the protests. While tens of thousands turned out for the second time on two weeks on Saturday, he is likely to take comfort from the fact that there was not a huge increase in the numbers.
Tens of thousands protested in cities across Russia on December 10. Saturday, organizers said they had gathered 120,000 in Moscow though the police put the number at 30,000.
The truth may lie somewhere in between: Russia’s Navaya Gazeta opposition newspaper said its reporters counted more than 102,000 while estimates from state news agency RIA put the crowd at about 56,000.
Putin appears to reason that even though the protests are much larger than any he has faced before, it is still a relatively small percentage of the population that is protesting in a country of more than 140 million.
He is counting on the support of the many millions in the provinces who regard him as the man who restored order to Russia after the chaos of the decade that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
In a televised question and answer session with the Russian people, Putin used a reference to the chattering monkeys known as “Bandar Log” in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book to describe the protesters and said he thought the white ribbons which are the symbol of the election protests were condoms.
But Alexei Navalny, the most prominent leader of the divided opposition groups which refuse to negotiate with the Kremlin, turned Putin’s comments back against the authorities.
“Hi all of you Bandar Logs and Internet hamsters: You were called Bandar Log but you came here today. But where is the chap who called us that?” Navalny, 35, told tens of thousands of people at the protest in Moscow’s Sakharov Avenue.
Navalny’s satire may excite the crowds and the thousands who read his blogs but there is still no leader of the fragmented opposition. As if to illustrate that, dozens of different leaders addressed the crowd in Moscow.
United or not, Navalny warned that there were enough people at the protest to take the Kremlin by force, though he quickly added that this was not the plan.
“If the authorities continue to cheat the people and thieves and if those two swindlers continue the usurpation of power - they have stolen it from the people - then the people will come and take it back because it is theirs by rights,” he told Reuters.
So does he plan a revolution?
“It is not a revolution,” he said. “The revolution, the illegal takeover of power, was implemented by Putin and Medvedev. Here there will be a legal return of power to the people.”
Editing by Jon Hemming