Vladimir Putin faces signs of mutiny in own government as protests break out in east
Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, faces signs of an unprecedented mutiny within his own government that threatens to undermine his once unassailable authority, The Sunday Telegraph can reveal.
By Adrian Blomfield in Vladivostok
01 Feb 2009
Mr Putin is facing the germs of an unexpected power struggle which could hamper his ambition to project Russian might abroad.
Subordinates have begun openly to defy Mr Putin, a man whose diktat has inspired fear and awe in the echelons of power for nine years, according to government sources. Meanwhile a rift is emerging between Mr Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, the figurehead whom he groomed as his supposedly pliant successor.
As Russia's economy begins to implode after years of energy-driven growth, Mr Putin is facing the germs of an unexpected power struggle which could hamper his ambition to project Russian might abroad.
Mounting job losses and a collapse in the price of commodities have triggered social unrest on a scale not seen for at least four years, prompting panic among Kremlin officials more accustomed to the political apathy of the Russian people.
The unease was deepened yesterday after thousands of protestors marched through the Pacific port city of Vladivostok and other cities, including Moscow, demanding Mr Putin's resignation for his handling of the flailing Russian economy.
Up to one million Russians are estimated by financial analysts to have lost their jobs over the past two months, and the economy is expected to shrink by up to three per cent this year. Meanwhile the Russian rouble has been falling steadily against other currencies for months, making it the world's third worst performing currency this year, and industry is disintegrating.
"I was furious when I heard Putin speaking fairy tales in Davos about how our economy is under control," said Yevgeny Antipov, a 21-year-old student in Vladivostok, insisting that he was not afraid to be marching against the government for the first time.
"It is my duty to stand up for my rights," he said. "I want to live in a good place. I want my children to grow up in a free country, not a gulag.
"Worryingly for the government, the rally was lead by the Communist party -- which has been wary of criticising Mr Putin in the past -- and a new grassroots movement called Tiger, which draws together a range of disaffected residents from Russia's far east. Tiger is the kind of organisation that the Kremlin particularly fears, a civil rights movement with no political allegiance.
In Moscow dozens of protestors were arrested, including Eduard Limonov, head of the banned National Bolshevik Party.
At least two senior officials in the Russian Far East had previouisly countermanded an order by Mr Putin to use force to disperse anti-government protests, a source close to the Kremlin said.
Angry car workers in Vladivostok and other cities on Russia's Pacific seaboard first rose up in anger last month after Mr Putin announced a rise of up to 80 per cent in tax on imported foreign cars.
The decision, aimed at protecting Russia's own decrepit and crisis-ridden domestic car industry, threatened economic disaster for the Russian far east, where at least 100,000 people are employed in the business of importing and revamping second hand cars from Japan and South Korea.
The protests, which began on Dec 14, rapidly took on a political hue and Mr Putin, who is intolerant of dissent, ordered the Kremlin's top officials in the far east to use force next time. But senior adminstrators refused to intervene and a week later the government was forced to send a special detachment of riot police from Moscow to break up a second protest in Valdivostok.
Furious that he had again been disobeyed, Mr Putin directed Vladislav Surkov, his top ideologue, to sack the newly appointed head of internal affairs in Primorye, the region surrounding Vladivostok.
But the official, Maj Gen Andrei Nikolayev, flatly refused to leave his post. Sources say he threatened to expose corruption linked to the Kremln in the Russian far east if Mr Putin pressed ahead.
Such a gesture of defiance is almost unheard of in Russia. Gen Nikolayev was supposed to be the man entrusted by the Kremlin to keep regional officials under control.
But he quickly found a powerful champion in the form of President Dmitry Medvedev, who is said to have countermanded his dismissal. "The fight between Medvedev and Putin started over this issue and has been getting worse ever since," the source close to the Kremlin said.
The row in Russia's duumvirate threatens to undermine Mr Putin's carefully laid plan to remain Russia's most powerful man after he was forced by the constitution to step down as president last year.
Mr Putin changed jobs to become prime minister last May and shoehorned Mr Medvedev, a pliant loyalist and old friend, into his old job. For the first six months the new president seemed willing to act as the prime minister's junior.
But things have now begun to change. Allegedly goaded by his wife Svetlana, Mr Medvedev has started to assert himself and to criticise the government - though not Mr Putin by name - for its slow implementation of a $200 billion rescue package.
He is understood to have begun building up a small but significant independent power base. In what could be a major scalp for the president, it is rumoured in Moscow that Mr Surkov has defected to his side.
Relations between Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev have reportedly soured in recent weeks. Mr Putin is said to have been furious after receiving an report on the economy drawn up by the president's experts, viewing it as interference.
"The financial crisis has given Medvedev a whiff of opportunity to challenge Putin," a Western diplomat said. "Putin is arguably not capo di tutti capi any more.
"Even though his approval rating remains high - 83 per cent in the most recent survey - Mr Putin is, like other world leaders, under pressure because of the financial crisis. So far he has put a brave face on his problems, lecturing world leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week on how to solve their financial woes.
But he has made an unspoken bargain with his people. In return for creating an anti-democratic state, he has promised to deliver financial stability and economic growth. That pledge, which looked so secure when oil was selling at more than $100 a barrel, is looking increasingly tattered today.
The anger of ordinary Russians was on show in the streets of Vladivostok yesterday. Although only several hundred began the march, ordinary passers by applauded in encouragement as they passed and many joined them as they marched down the city's main street, chanting "Putin resign!". Some banners compared the prime minister to Hitler.
By the time the demonstrators reached the finishing point in a square dominated by a statue of Lenin, their number had swelled to nearly 2,000.
The biggest display of public disaffection with Mr Putin prompted a violent response in Moscow. Pro Kremlin youth wingers brutally beat some protestors, while others were detained, including Eduard Limonov, a prominent Kremlin critic and leader of the outlawed National Bolshevik Party.