MOSCOW – As Russians face one of the leanest holiday seasons in years, Vladimir Putin’s personal security agency is combing the country for hard-hit places to dole out a little Kremlin generosity.
Known for burly agents who protect the president, Russia’s secretive Federal Guards Service is also tasked with keeping tabs on public discontent in some of the country’s most economically depressed regions. Where its polls show unhappiness, a special government task force swoops in to dispense extra subsidies and help fired workers get new jobs.
“We’re ready for things to get worse in some sectors. We conduct constant monitoring, especially in the problem cities,” said Irina Makiyeva, the state-bank executive who heads the task force. “The FSO is an integral part of our working group,” she added, using the agency’s Russia abbreviation.
Backed by the FSO, her work has taken on new urgency amid the recession as part of the Kremlin’s strategy for making sure the worsening economic pain doesn’t turn into a political problem.
So far, public protests have been limited to local strikes easily resolved by the government. Last week, truckers blocked roads around Moscow to protest new tolls, forcing the government to reduce or delay some of the charges.
Makiyeva’s working group targets the most at-risk areas, one-company towns where the recession has hit hard and there are few alternatives for those who lose their jobs. The FSO handles polling and other monitoring to provide early warning.
Putin’s approval ratings remain sky-high and the Kremlin’s tight control of the political system means there’s no chance of any critic getting real traction. But with a prolonged recession pushing consumer incomes down 3.5 percent in the first 10 months of this year, the most since Putin came to power, Kremlin officials say they understand the economic pain will begin to eat into Putin’s support as the patriotic euphoria from the annexation of Crimea and the Syrian operation wears off.