Billionaires Join U.S. in Drawing Putin’s Ire in Campaign

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
At a meeting with local media heads yesterday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin also criticized opposition leaders for a lack of dialog after tens of thousands of people protested against alleged violations during parliamentary elections won by his party last month. Photographer: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin berated U.S. influence at a Moscow radio station and blamed billionaire oligarchs for souring the investment climate as campaigning for presidential elections kicked off.

At a meeting with local media heads yesterday, Putin also criticized opposition leaders for a lack of dialog after tens of thousands of people protested against alleged violations during parliamentary elections won by his party last month.

Putin plans to return to the Kremlin after four years as premier in a March vote and needs 50 percent backing to avoid a runoff. Rather than engage with the leaders of Russia’s biggest demonstrations since he came to power, Putin is seeking to appeal to his core support to ensure success, according to Jenia Ustinova, an analyst at Eurasia Group in New York.

“It appears that Putin has settled on a strategy of shoring up his base and is increasingly unlikely to pivot toward a progressive platform or a compromise with the opposition,” Ustinova wrote in a note yesterday, before the prime minister’s remarks. “Putin does not necessarily need to make inroads with the protesters to win the presidential election.”

Russia’s Micex stock index was little changed today at 1,493.12 at 1:29 p.m., after three days of gains. It’s fallen from 1,517.89 on Dec. 5, when protests against the previous day’s parliamentary vote began.

‘Negative Attitude’

Oligarchs who profited in “unfair” sales of state assets in the 1990s and bought foreign sports clubs and luxury goods fuel a “negative attitude toward business” that “doesn’t promote a favorable climate,” Putin said.

Billionaires Mikhail Prokhorov, 46, and Roman Abramovich, 45, own the New York Nets basketball team and Chelsea Football Club, respectively. Prokhorov is also running for president.

A program on the Ekho Moskvy radio station appeared to support U.S. intentions to house parts of a missile-defense system in eastern Europe, a plan Russia is fighting, Putin said, adding that this was done in part with Russian taxpayers’ money as Ekho Moskvy is state-owned.

“The Americans won’t give us access,” Putin said at the meeting in Novo Ogarevo, outside Moscow. “They don’t even let their NATO partners in Europe access the control system.”

New U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul came under criticism in state television after meeting opposition activists two days ago. In a special report broadcast Jan. 17, a Channel One commentator said McFaul, a longstanding Russia expert, was aiming to promote democratization and revolution.

Ambassador Meetings

McFaul in a blog posting said he and visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns had met with senior Russian officials and civil society leaders. “It’s a policy we call dual track engagement. We learned a lot from listening to these leaders,” he said.

Putin, 59, is facing the biggest challenge to his rule since he replaced the ailing President Boris Yeltsin on Dec. 31, 1999. Challengers in the presidential race, for which registration ended yesterday, are backing demands for new parliamentary elections after December’s polls sparked mass protests in Moscow and other Russian cities.

Addressing the unrest, Putin accused opposition figures Boris Akunin and Dmitry Bykov, both writers, of ignoring opportunities to meet.

“We’ve invited them but they don’t come,” he said. “What do they want? I’m ready to meet them and talk. I’ve invited them more than once.”

‘Self-Congratulatory Platform’

The writers said later that they are ready to meet with Putin, Ekho Moskvy reported.

There are no specific plans for a meeting and the prime minister’s schedule is tight, Dmitry Peskov, his spokesman, said today by phone.

Since the parliamentary election vote, Deputy Prime Minister Vyacheslav Volodin has replaced Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov, while Sergei Ivanov, another deputy premier, has taken over as head of the presidential administration.

“Hard-line loyalists were appointed to key posts in recent weeks, while Putin himself unveiled a populist, self-congratulatory campaign platform,” Ustinova wrote. While his tactics may be enough for a first-round victory in March, they “will do little to address underlying political tensions, or pacify the protest constituency.”

President Dmitry Medvedev last month proposed legislation to make it easier to register parties and run for president. The changes will take full effect in 2016 and 2018, when the next parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled.

‘Expanding Freedoms’

“Russia’s growth over the next decades means expanding freedoms for each of us,” Putin wrote in a Jan. 16 article in the Izvestia newspaper and posted on his website.

The prime minister has close to the 50 percent backing needed to win the presidential vote in the first round, according to the latest poll published by the state-run All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion.

Putin would get 48 percent, compared with 10 percent for Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, 9 percent for Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the nationalist Liberal Democrats and 5 percent for Sergei Mironov, a former ally of the premier who leads the Just Russia opposition party, according to the Jan. 7-8 survey of 1,600 Russians. The margin of error was 3.4 percentage points.

Putin’s United Russia party inflated its share of last month’s Duma vote to about 50 percent from 30 percent and even “major fraud” can’t bring about a first-round victory, Zyuganov said Jan. 11. Putin has every chance of winning without a runoff, Peskov, said Jan. 17.

The next street protest is planned for Feb. 4 in downtown Moscow. As of yesterday evening, more than 19,600 people had signed up to attend via the organizers’ Facebook Inc. page.

“I don’t see any willingness by Putin to change the political system,” Just Russia’s Mironov said in a Jan. 17 interview. “He believes monopoly of power is good.”

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