15 years after Putin was first elected president, former allies question his course



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MOSCOW — As Russian President Vladimir Putin marks 15 years since he was first elected, his former long-term allies are questioning his political course and warning of the economic consequences of his aggressive foreign policy.

Putin's approval ratings peaked last year as the Kremlin annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and have stayed at record high levels as many Russians are basking in what state media present as the glory of the return of this former part of the Russian empire.

Yet in a rare show of dissent several long-time former allies of the president on Tuesday warned about the cost of the foreign policy. They were speaking at a round table to mark Putin's 15 years in power and were moderated by the president's spokesman.

The annexation of Crimea in March last year, which Putin has admitted was his personal decision, and Russia's ensuing role in the bloody conflict in eastern Ukraine caused international outrage and saw Russia slapped with economic sanctions.

Alexei Kudrin, Russia's finance minister in 2000-2011 and a former deputy prime minister, argued that Putin's focus on foreign policy means that Russia won't return to economic growth levels suitable for a great power in coming years.

"We're stuck," he said, adding that growth rates of 1-2 percent, which is the best Russia can hope for in the current environment, "do not reflect Russia's ability to be competitive in the global economy."

What's more, the fallout from the Ukraine crisis, as well as direct financing to Crimea will cost Russia $150-$200 billion in the next three to four years, according to Kudrin. That's roughly half of Russia's foreign currency reserves.

Kudrin warned that the nationalist sentiment, unleashed with Crimea's annexation is spooking stability-seeking businesses because it shows that "priority is given to political goals" and the Kremlin is ready to "pay an economic price."

Russia's economy is expected to contract by 3-6 percent this year in its steepest decline since Putin took office. His third presidential term expires in 2018, but Putin hasn't yet confirmed if he's going to run for a fourth term.

Liberal economists like Kudrin are still believed to have the president's ear but have largely lost influence on decision-making.

Igor Yurgens, a former Kremlin adviser, raised concern about the stifling of dissent and branding liberals as "fifth columnists," which he said hampers Russia's long-term chances for prosperity.

"Without them (liberals) and without the necessary structural reforms, our economy will not survive the policy that the president is pursuing," Yurgens said.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov brushed off the comments and said that he pins his hopes to a younger "Putin generation" which doesn't "know the horrors of the 1990s" and is fiercely loyal to the president, the only Russian leader they remember.

As a result of the economic downturn the disposable income of Russians is due to drop this year for the first time since Putin took office. Yet the difficulties have not yet led to any major social unrest. Kremlin-friendly pollster FOM expects it to stay this way — at least for a while.

"The majority of people who approve of the president's actions and values are ready to be patient and wait for a long time," FOM's director Alexander Olson said.

Putin became acting president when Boris Yeltsin resigned on New Year's Eve 1999. He won election for the first time on March 26, 2000 and a second time in 2004. He did not run in 2008 because of term limits, but remained Russia's dominant official as prime minister. He won a six-year new term in 2012.

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