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Putin Leaves Few Options for Opposition01/18 09:34

   MOSCOW (AP) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin played it differently this 
time.

   Instead of openly declaring plans to extend his rule like he did in 2011, 
Putin proposed constitutional amendments to appear to give more power to 
Russia's parliament.

   Instead of announcing the move as a fait accompli, he said the people should 
vote and decide.

   And then he executed a swift, unexpected reshuffle of Russia's leadership, 
putting a low-profile official with no political aims in charge of the 
government. 

   Putin announced what many see as a strategy for staying in power well past 
the end of his term in 2024. And the proposed constitutional reforms that might 
allow him to remain in charge as prime minister or as head of the State Council 
didn't elicit much public outrage. 

   Neither did the resignation of Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's prime minister, 
whom Putin quickly replaced with the little-known tax chief, Mikhail Mishustin. 

   There was a smattering of calls for protest: One opposition supporter urged 
people to join his one-man picket in front of the Presidential Administration 
on Saturday, while another called for protesters to turn out against the 
"constitutional coup" at a Sunday rally in honor of two slain activists. 

   It was very different from what happened in 2011-2012, when efforts to 
engineer Putin's return to the presidency crushed Russian hopes for 
liberalization and sparked massive protests in Moscow.

   In his speech Wednesday, Putin presented his plan to amend the constitution 
as a way to improve democracy. By suggesting that lawmakers could name prime 
ministers and Cabinet members, he also curtailed the authority of the 
president, who currently holds that power.

   Putin also said the constitution could specify a greater role for the State 
Council, an obscure consultative body of regional governors and federal 
officials, indicating that he might take a leading position there. 

   He also sought to prioritize the primacy of Russian laws, so that the 
European Court of Human Rights would no longer have the authority to issue 
rulings that Moscow opposed. 

   All this would "strengthen the role of civil society, political parties and 
regions in making key decisions about the development of our state," Putin said 
Thursday in discussing the amendments with lawmakers. 

   New Prime Minister Mishustin was praised by government officials and 
commentators as an "effective manager" with expertise in finance who would be 
able to drive Russia's stagnating economy out of a slump. 

   Many Russians might see that as a positive change rather than a 
sophisticated political plot. According to a survey released Friday by Russia's 
state-funded pollster VTsIOM, 45% of the respondents saw the shakeup as Putin's 
genuine desire to change the existing power structure. 

   But opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny said the changes are not the kind 
that people are looking for. Putin is looking to "remain a lifelong, ultimate 
leader" and run Russia as "property" divided between himself and his backers, 
Navalny tweeted. 

   And the announced changes do nothing to address what Russians really want, 
said Navalny ally Lyubov Sobol. 

   "People demand to end corruption, people demand to improve their living 
conditions. They demand a reform of the health care system, they're worried 
about pension reform. All these demands, they are not going anywhere," Sobol 
told The Associated Press. 

   Vladimir Milov, an opposition politician, echoed that sentiment. Russians 
are willing to put up with worsened living conditions if they see potential for 
growth in the future --- but Putin's address shows he's not interested in that, 
he said. 

   "This is the main conflict between Putin and society right now," Milov said. 
"Society can't wait for economic growth to start again, and Putin doesn't care, 
he's occupied with other things. At some point, this will backfire." 

   Still, the announced constitutional reforms are unlikely to trigger a new 
wave of protests. 

   "All recent protests happened when discontent that has been building up for 
a while spilled out, triggered by something. Amending the constitution is 
unlikely to be a trigger," Milov said. 

   Denis Volkov, a sociologist with the independent Levada polling center, said 
the government shakeup is so vague it is unlikely to spur public anger.

   "What is happening is not clear. Is this about a presidency? About some 
other governing body? It is unclear what people should express their 
unhappiness about," Volkov said. "It is hard to protest against something 
that's unclear." 

   In addition, Volkov noted, back in 2011-2012 Putin's approval ratings were 
much lower --- more than half of the country wanted him out. "Right now there 
is no urge to replace the country's leader," he said. 

   And the question remains whether the opposition will be able to galvanize 
people to protest. The Kremlin last year turned up the pressure on activists 
and politicians, sandbagging them with high-figure fines and exhausting them 
with arrests and trials. 

   There are several criminal cases open against Sobol and other Navalny 
allies. Sobol said she owes the government more than $400,000 in fines, and 
expects more fines to be imposed on opposition figures. 

   "There is a high probability that political pressure on us will continue 
this year," she said. 

   Still, Sobol vowed the opposition will continue the fight --- by protesting, 
contesting the government's actions in court and exposing corrupt officials. 

   On Thursday, Navalny said in a post online that Mishustin's wife earned some 
$12 million over the past nine years, according to her tax returns, even though 
she never owned nor ran a business. He demanded answers from Mishustin, who 
headed Russia's tax service until he was named prime minister this week, and 
alleged there was corruption involved. 

   Dmitry Gudkov, a former lawmaker turned opposition politician, believes an 
early parliamentary election is likely, since he says the Kremlin would want 
the vote to be this year instead of next. 

   "They're in a rush and want to (pass the proposed constitutional amendments) 
with the sitting parliament, which they fully control," Gudkov. "Clearly that 
changes our strategy."


(KR)

 
 
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