RUSPUTINMoscow, RUSSIA - Widespread discontent, fueled by a massively unpopular pension reforms, has sent approval ratings for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ruling party tumbling to historical lows.

But in a development that is likely to cause alarm among western observers, the sudden loss of trust in Mr Putin’s rule is benefiting the Communist Party and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), whose leader often urges the Kremlin to carry out nuclear attacks against Moscow’s foes. Both parties made big gains in recent regional elections, crushing Mr Putin’s United Russia party.

Forty-five percent of Russians now say they would back Mr. Putin at presidential elections, down from 67 percent at the start of the year, according to Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), a Kremlin-linked pollster. Support for United Russia is at 32 percent, an almost 20 percent decline since January, FOM also said this month.

“People are so fed up of United Russia that they are ready to vote for a party of clowns,” said Ilya Yashin, a Kremlin critic, refering to LDPR's election successes.

Analysts say the dramatic decline in support for Mr. Putin is linked to a new law that increases the national retirement age by five years, from 55 to 60 for women, and 60 to 65 for men. Mr. Putin, in a televised address in August, said an ageing population meant Russia risked economic collapse, if the pensions reforms were not introduced.

Few Russians were convinced, with around 90 percent of the population against the law, according to an opinion poll by the Levada Centre, an independent pollster based in Moscow. The reforms are unpopular because the average life expectancy for Russian men is just 66, and many fear they will not live to see their pensions.

In a poll result that caused shockwaves in Moscow, the LDPR scored a landslide victory over United Russia at last month’s election for the governor’s seat in Khabarovsk, a city in Russia’s far east, taking 70 percent of the vote. The United Russia candidate received just under 28 percent. The LDPR, the third biggest party in parliament, also won in the run-off election for governor of the Vladimir region near Moscow, garnering 20 percent more of the vote than United Russia.

The vehemently anti-western LDPR is led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a veteran firebrand politician who has previously urged nuclear attacks on Turkey and Japan, as well as the carpet-bombing of Germany. Earlier this year, he proposed dropping a nuclear weapon on the Ukrainian president’s residence. “A small bomb. Not a big Hiroshima, a small one,” he said on state television. “Radiation will be minimal.”

Over the years, Mr. Zhirinovsky, 72, has also pledged to provide free vodka, legalize polygamy, and clone famous Russians such as Pyotr Tchaikovsky.
Mr. Zhirinovsky hailed the results as evidence that his party was on the right path. “This is a deserved victory. We have also had the support of the electorate,” he said.

Some analysts suggested, however, that the LDPR’s electoral success was purely the result of protest voting. “People are sick of the status quo and they want change for change’s sake,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, a prominent political analyst.

The Communist Party, which ruled the Soviet Union for seven decades, also scored big wins in local parliamentary elections in central Russia and Siberia last month. Its candidate was only prevented from taking control of Vladivostok, a major port city in Russia’s far east, by vote-rigging in favour of Mr Putin’s candidate.

Andrei Ishchenko, the Communist Party challenger, was defeated in elections for the regional governor’s seat despite having led Mr Putin’s candidate by 2 percent with 99 percent of the vote counted. In an near-unprecedented development, the results of the vote were annulled by the government-controlled election committee after street protests. A new vote will take place before the end of the year.

The recent election results are United Russia’s biggest setbacks at the polls since the party was formed in 2001. They are doubly surprising because most analysts say that under Mr. Putin’s carefully managed political system, rival parties are allowed to enter Russia’s parliament to provide the illusion of a functioning democracy but are expected to adhere to strict rules in return for massive state funding. Those rules include a ban on contesting elections too fiercely, and supporting the Kremlin on key policy issues.

“This is a very serious challenge for the Kremlin, and the presidential administration will be carrying out brain-storming to try and somehow fix the political and electoral system,” said Vladimir Slatinov, a political analyst with the Humanitarian and Political Studies Institute in Moscow.

Vedomosti, a respected Russian business newspaper, reported that the Kremlin was seeking ways to “punish” the Communist Party and the LDPR for their refusal to play the game. The electoral losses also triggered the mass dismissals of incumbent United Russia governors with falling voter support, as the Kremlin attempted to shore up its position in the regions.

Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist widely seen as the Kremlin’s harshest critic, has so far been unable to capitalize on the growing unrest. Although Mr. Navalny has built up an impressive nationwide network of supporters, he is barred from forming a political party and has been subject to a smear campaign by state media. Just 3 percent of Russians say they trust him, according to the Levada Centre, an independent pollster in Moscow.

Although Russian parliamentary polls aren’t due until 2021, and presidential elections, at which Mr. Putin is ineligible to stand, aren’t scheduled until 2014, rising distrust of the government threatens political turbulence, analysts say.

“United Russia’s aura of invincibility has now vanished, and voters have seen that Putin is not some powerful wizard,” said Mr. Oreshkin, the political analyst.

Some Kremlin critics fear that Mr Putin may be planning a new foreign military adventure to boost his ratings. When Russian troops seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Mr. Putin, who was facing large-scale opposition protests in Moscow, saw his popularity rocket to sky-high levels.

“The authorities could again find themselves on the back foot,” wrote Vitali Shkliarov, a Russian political consultant, in an article for Republic, a Russian-language current affairs website “Another ‘geopolitical success’ remains, perhaps, one of the few strategies for Putin.”

Photo: Unpopular pension reforms have decreased the popularity of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ruling party. 

Story/photo published date: 10/24/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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