Putin's poll numbers plummet, but he's still on top
The only person in Russia surprised to see Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's approval rating plummet, may be Putin himself.
(CBS) MOSCOW - A poll released Friday shows only 51 percent of Russians approve of the job he's doing.
They're still numbers President Obama would kill for, but down from 61 percent in late November, and 68 percent since last January.
Things started to go sour for Putin in September, when he made the unilateral decision to try and swap jobs with his successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, in presidential elections to be held in March.
Putin couldn't run for president in 2008 because of laws banning three consecutive terms.
Plenty of Russian commentators say Medvedev has only been keeping Putin's seat warm. Regardless of the title he holds, Putin has ostensibly been running Russia for 12 years, and looks set to continue doing so for a long time.
Then came the parliamentary elections, with widespread allegations of vote fraud. The anger that erupted only grew when amateur video surfaced
purporting to show officials stuffing ballot boxes. The video's authenticity was never verified, but the damage was done.
After a couple of unauthorized protests, which resulted in a couple hundred arrests, Putin had little choice but to let the opposition come out and protest, which it did in last weekend's mass demonstrations. They were the biggest protests seen in Russia during Putin's effective 12 year rule.
Even with the dubious vote count, Putin's United Russia party took a hammering at the polls.
Everyone you speak to in Russia has an opinion on Putin, most are bad, some are vicious - but none are calling for his head.
The educated middle classes, who make up the bulk of the protesters, say they just don't want to be misled, cheated, or lied to any more. Arguably, they've done pretty well under Putin, and they readily admit it.
Putin's free market policies - teamed with a booming oil market generating plenty of revenue - have helped aspiring Russians to achieve a standard of living that previous generations would never have dreamed possible.
Putin's Russia has also somehow managed to avoid the worst of the global economic cyclone bashing Europe and the United States - although oil revenues are down, and are expected to sink further.
All these factors have made Putin wonder - out loud - what everybody's complaining about.Even new-comer to Russia's presidential race, billionaire bachelor Mikhail Prokhorov, resists openly criticizing Putin.
Yesterday, I asked the flamboyant NBA team owner how serious he is about challenging Putin. He said it was a decision he deliberated for two months, and he intends to focus all his energy on winning the race. (Click the video player to see more from Prokhorov)
He says people are tired of Putin, tired of his policies, and they need a change.
But many Russians speculate that Prokhorov has been secretly endorsed by the Kremlin in a plan to find a loyal figure to lead the protest
movement. Incidentally, a lot of people here are genuinely excited about Prokhorov's decision to run, but less enthusiastic about some of the ideas he's floated, like extending the work week and increasing the age of retirement.
The approval poll was taken before Putin did a marathon four-hour televised question and answer session on Thursday.
During the exchange, he said he welcomed the protests - saying if the demonstrations are a result of the "Putin Regime, it makes me happy."
At the same time he ridiculed what he called "angry urban communities" in the protests and said he mistook a symbol of the protests, the white ribbons, for condoms.
Not surprisingly the Russian blogosphere struck back quickly, saying Putin is simply out of touch.
So might Putin's plummeting approval ratings mean the end - or even the beginning of the end? Analysts here say it's unlikely.
Even with Prokhorov in the race, there's no serious challenger.
The Moscow Times lists the other candidates as "Perennial losers: Gennady Zyuganov (three failed presidential bids), Vladimir Zhirinovsky (four failed bids), and Sergei Mironov, head of "A Just Russia", who in 2004 urged voters to choose Putin over himself."
In short, Putin is still widely expected to win the elections in March. Just not by as wide a margin as he has in past elections, and maybe not in the first round of voting.
For the first time in a long time, Russian politics have become ever so slightly unpredictable.