Dissent beginning to spread across Russia as crisis bites

Thousands protest at Putin's handling of economy while rift with Medvedev grows

The Kremlin's rule is beginning to look much shakier than at any time since Vladimir Putin came to power, after a series of protests in cities across its vast landmass this weekend by Russians disgruntled about the economy. And as the country starts to feel the effects of the global credit crunch, there are also signs of a growing rift between Prime Minister Putin, and his hand-picked successor as President, Dmitry Medvedev.

In Vladivostok, 2,000 protesters took to the streets, with some carrying banners reading "Kremlin, we are against you", and other people chanting directly for the removal of Mr Putin. The Pacific port city, seven time zones away from Moscow, has become a focal point for dissent after riot police broke up a march last year over car imports and detained 100 people. Saturday's demonstration, under the watchful eye of the police, passed off peacefully.

Nearly every major city had a street rally, and though most were low key, the unusual scale of dissatisfaction is likely to worry the authorities. The Russian economy has been hit hard by falling oil prices, many oligarchs have seen billions of pounds wiped off the value of their shares, and ordinary Russians are feeling the pinch as factories struggle to stay afloat and companies lay off employees.

In Moscow, a motley band of communists, anarchists and liberals gathered at several points across the city to protest against Kremlin rule. At one spot, a dozen protesters taped over their mouths with white tape, held up white placards with no slogans, and handed blank white flyers to passers-by. Bemused by such a conceptual approach to protest, the police rounded them up and arrested them anyway, and the organiser got five days in prison.

Mr Putin has made several speeches blaming the economic chaos on America, and says he expects things to improve by the end of the year. State-controlled television is playing down the crisis, and most newspapers are also toeing the Kremlin line, but the internet is a worrying medium for those in charge, and offers a forum for dissenters to exchange ideas. Tiger, an acronym for The Society for Proactive Russian Citizens, is an online community of anti-government activists based across Russia's 11 time zones. Participants use the online forum to discuss how best to oppose the government. Those involved estimate that about 10,000 people have signed up since last autumn.

"We're waiting for warmer weather because it's simply difficult to stay outside for long when it's minus 20," said Maria Baranova, a 27-year-old resident of Vladivostok active in the Tiger movement. "But in the spring we plan to mount protests every weekend. Before I got involved I never realised how many people are unhappy. I can't believe that there are so many people living near me who are politically aware and saying smart things."

While there are signs that the ripple of anger could turn into a tidal wave, few analysts expect street protests to have any chance of bringing down the government. "There will be more unrest, but it will be localised," says Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst in Moscow. "There is not the organisational structure in place for anything more."

But, says Mr Oreshkin, the business and political elite, who largely accepted the trade-off of political freedoms for the economic prosperity of the past few years, is becoming disillusioned. "Two or three years ago, we could talk about the 'Putin Consensus' among the elites. Now that consensus has broken down. The elites are better informed than the rest of the population, have more to lose, and understand just how bad things are."

Mr Medvedev, who was swept into the Kremlin last year with the backing of Mr Putin, has begun to emerge as a more independent player. He has criticised the government for failing to implement anti-crisis measures effectively, stating that only 30 per cent of measures had been put through and the government was working "more slowly than the current situation demands". Though he did not mention Mr Putin by name, the economy is traditionally the responsibility of the Prime Minister, and many commentators noted the water he was putting between the presidency and the premiership.

"Everyone serious knows that in six months, things will be catastrophically bad here," says Mr Oreshkin. "Medvedev is subtly trying to make it clear that the economy is Putin's responsibility. However well-disposed he is towards Putin, it's very clear that the beginnings of a divide are there."

The prospects: Grim, and getting grimmer

*Oil prices: Urals crude has slumped to $43 per barrel from a high of more than $150 last summer. Russia's 2009 budget is based on an oil price of $95 and will be in deficit if oil averages less than $70 this year.

*Currency reserves: During the boom in oil prices, Russia built up the third- largest currency reserves in the world. But since August, more than $200bn has been spent defending the rouble, with reserves now standing at around $380bn and decreasing by the day.

*Rouble rate: Last summer, President Medvedev suggested the rouble would become a major world currency. Now, the ailing rouble has lost 30 per cent of its value against the dollar and euro.

*Inflation: Officially, inflation for 2009 is forecast to be 13 per cent, but many expect the actual figure to be much higher.

*Unemployment: Unemployment grew grew by a quarter to nearly six million in 2008, and, with the grim economic climate, could rocket higher this year.

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