“Wednesday’s dismissal of Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov (above left), once a trusted aide, has underlined how isolated Putin is a year into his third term,” writes Reuters’ Timothy Heritage:
His replacement by a less sophisticated operator, Vyacheslav Volodin, heralded a shift in policy towards anti-Western rhetoric and tougher tactics against the protesters….Since Surkov’s departure from the presidential staff, veterans of the spy and security agencies and other conservatives known as the “siloviki”, or men of power, have gained the upper hand in shaping Putin’s thinking and are behind what the opposition sees as a Soviet-style clampdown on dissent.
Putin has in the past two years been abandoned by, forced out or become distant from the more liberal thinkers who once influenced him, leaving him politically isolated as his popularity wanes and the economy slides towards recession.
“I won’t say that power is slipping from his hands but he is not as strong as he was,” said a source once close to the Kremlin and the government. “At the start of the 2000s, he was a unifying figure. He is no longer that.”
Putin’s ratings are much lower than at their peak before the 2008-09 financial crash, said Lev Gudkov, head of the Levada Center, an independent polling group.
In a recent Levada poll, 41 percent did not want Putin to contest the presidency in 2018, against 28 percent who did.
“People are dissatisfied … you can campaign, try to convince and make promises, but they feel the decline in living standards,” Gudkov said. “Regardless of the propaganda, and the populist statements, Putin’s social (support) base is falling.”
Surkov was the architect of the Kremlin’s “sovereign democracy” which sought to obscure the reality of a “power vertical” that concentrated power in Putin’s hands, but he had become “marginalized” in recent months, says Marat Guelman, a former political consultant who worked with him.
“He was caught in a paradigm shift. Today we see a return to tradition, to obscurantism. I think he himself wanted out,” Guelman said.
Few observers missed the irony that, in his run-in with Putin, Surkov met his political demise at the very hands of the arbitrary and unaccountable regime which he worked years to create.
“He was used to working in comfort, defended from external threats by his superiors,” said Alexei Venediktov, chief editor of Ekho Moskvy. “In fact, he himself created such threats for others.”
Putin is presiding over a declining and decaying society, according to Oliver Bullough’s The Last Man in Russia.
“Russian life expectancy hit a high in the mid-1960s—69 years, the same as in the contemporary West,” reviewer Brian Bethune writes for Macleans:
Since then, Westerners have added about a decade and a half to their average lifespans, while Russian life expectancy for males has shrunk to 63 and Russians of both sexes are five times more likely to die of “external” causes—murder, suicide, drowning, car crashes—than West Europeans. Birth rates cratered along with the Soviet Union; there were 148 million Russians in 1990; now there are 141 million. The country, Bullough argues, is dying from within.