Putin strong at 60 but economic challenges loom

By Vladimir Isachenkov

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Oct. 6 2012 8:21 a.m. MDT

While running for a third term in March's election, Putin relied on anti-American rhetoric to mobilize his core electorate, accusing the U.S. of fomenting protests against his rule in order to weaken Russia. He also tried to play blue-collar workers against the educated urban professionals forming the core of massive protests in Moscow, whom he described as members of the coddled elite at odds with the hard-working majority.

After his inauguration, Putin cracked down on his foes with a slew of draconian laws that hiked fines 150-fold for taking part in unauthorized protests, recriminalized slander and required non-government organizations that receive foreign funding to register as foreign agents. Another bill under discussion widens the definition of treason to include handing over information to international organizations.

Three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison in August for performing an anti-Putin "punk prayer" at Moscow's main cathedral, a verdict that drew global outrage and came to symbolize the Kremlin's crackdown on dissent.

"Putin has opted for a conservative action course, relying on conservative values and appealing to the most conservative sentiments of the population," said Alexei Makarkin, a leading analyst with the Center for Political Technologies, an independent think-tank.

He said that while the authorities would probably refrain from using the new laws in "mass repressions," they may prosecute some activists to make an example of them.

Makarkin predicted that Putin would continue playing the anti-American card, adding that many hawks in Putin's entourage would prefer a Mitt Romney victory in the U.S. presidential election, as the Republican candidate's view of Russia as Washington's "No. 1 geopolitical foe" would give Moscow strong arguments to deepen anti-U.S. policies. "Romney's rhetoric would allow the Kremlin to toughen its stance in relations with the United States," he said.

Putin will find himself at the center of public discontent in case of an economic downturn. If that happens, analysts say, the president would likely try to deflect the threat by sacrificing his protege Dmitry Medvedev, who became prime minister this year after serving as loyal presidential placeholder for four years, with Putin in the premiership due to term limits.

"Putin will fire Medvedev in case of a severe economic crisis caused by external factors," Belkovsky said.

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Associated Press writer Lynn Berry contributed to this report.

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