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Putin turns back the clock in Russia

Published September 29, 2012 11:49 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Moscow • President Vladimir Putin is turning back the clock on his predecessor's timid reforms — literally.

This week, Putin signaled his intent to reverse one of the few high-profile reforms Dmitry Medvedev enacted while president: keeping Russia stuck in summer time all year after clocks sprang forward in March. It's perhaps an apt symbol of Putin's relentless drive to roll back even the modest liberal legacy left behind by his protege, who made weak attempts at modernization as president but never emerged from the shadow of his patron — and meekly agreed to step down to let him reclaim the top job.

One by one, each of Medvedev's reforms — from decriminalizing slander to purging the boards of state-run companies of government officials — has been swept aside. Observers see it as part of a new tough course taken by Putin in response to massive winter protests against his rule, an indication that he sees no need for a compromise with the opposition. Suspicions are also rife that Putin may even be gearing up to dump Medvedev, his longtime political partner, as prime minister.

Nobody believed that Medvedev would really be in charge when he took over as president in 2008, while Putin moved into the prime minister's seat to observe a constitutional limit of two consecutive terms.

But he led many to believe that he may at least soften Putin's autocratic ways, especially when he proclaimed in a speech that "freedom is better than non-freedom." He heartened many by promising to allow greater political competition, champion media freedoms, liberalize the economy and fight graft.

In the end, he fulfilled few of these pledges, leaving the tightly controlled political system largely intact, while Putin made it abundantly clear that he remained Russia's paramount leader. A year ago, Medvedev showed unswerving loyalty to Putin when he refused to seek a second presidential term and agreed to swap jobs.

Medvedev now sees himself sinking further into irrelevance.

The latest blow came with Putin's comments on his protege's time switch initiative, which had angered many Russians because it meant they would have to trudge to work in pitch darkness during the nation's long winter. Medvedev had argued that keeping clocks on summer time helped farmers. Putin told reporters Tuesday that Medvedev "isn't fixed on his decision" — a comment that appears to signal that the measure is doomed.

A humiliating revision of his own move would further erode Medvedev's popularity, making it easier for Putin to sack him in the future if he decides to do so. A recent poll by the VTsIOM opinion research center showed Medvedev's approval rating dropping to just over 20 percent this month, half of the level during his presidency. The same poll showed Putin's approval rating staying stable at around 50 percent.

In one sign of fraying ties in the leadership duo, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told The Associated Press this week when asked about claims that some members of Putin's inner circle held Medvedev responsible for the explosion of anti-Kremlin protests over the winter that "it's not a secret that during Medvedev's presidency some mistakes were made."

Last winter's protests, which drew more than 100,000 people demanding an end to Putin's role into the frigid streets of Moscow, were the biggest Russia saw since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Clearly shocked, Putin blamed the U.S. for staging the demonstrations and squarely focused his campaign on his core support group of blue-collar workers and state employees.

After his inauguration in May, Putin quickly struck back at his political foes with a series of repressive bills that slapped hefty fines on participants in unsanctioned rallies and required foreign-funded non-governmental organizations, such as rights watchdogs and election monitoring groups, to register as "foreign agents" in a bid to undermine their credibility with Russians.

Medvedev's firm support for Barack Obama's policy of "resetting" ties with Russia, which suffered during George W. Bush's presidency, has given way to a barrage of anti-U.S. comments by Putin and his lieutenants. Earlier this month, Moscow halted the U.S. Agency for International Development's two decades of work in Russia saying it was meddling in elections — a claim Washington denied.

Opposition activists have faced interrogations and searches, and three members of the feminist rock band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison in August for a "punk prayer" for deliverance from Putin in Moscow's main cathedral.

Liberal initiatives of Medvedev's presidency looked increasingly out of place amid the crackdown on dissent, and the Kremlin quickly moved to repeal them.

The parliament controlled by Putin's loyalists quickly reversed Medvedev's law decriminalizing slander, giving law enforcement authorities a new weapon against dissent.

The presidential human rights council, which Medvedev filled with Kremlin critics, was quickly reshuffled to purge them, and a bill widely expanding the definition of high treason that Medvedev shelved in 2008 received a unanimous preliminary approval in parliament last week.

Medvedev's directive to remove government officials from boards of giant state-controlled companies has been reversed. And Putin's lieutenants, like energy czar Igor Sechin, successfully resisted a push for control over energy revenues by Medvedev loyalists. Medvedev himself has avoided meddling in those disputes and sought to demonstrate his loyalty to Putin.

Medvedev faced more trouble this month, when Putin gave a dressing down to several Cabinet ministers, saying that they had failed to fulfill his directives on drafting the next budget. It was an oblique criticism of Medvedev himself — as he leads the Cabinet and is in charge of the economy.

Alexei Makarkin, a leading analyst with the Center for Political Technologies, an independent Moscow-based think-tank, said that such criticism could be repeated and would help set the stage for Medvedev's ouster in the future.

"He would be unlikely to remain the prime minister for the entire Putin's term in office," Makarkin said.