Russian elections: Putin ‘moving into his Berlusconi phase,’ according to scholar

As polls universally predict victory for Vladimir Putin in Russian presidential elections Sunday, a prominent Washington Russia scholar likened the once and likely future Russian president to Italy's disgraced former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was ousted from power last year during the European financial crisis.

"Putin is now moving into his 'Berlusconi phase,'" Fiona Hill, a Russia scholar at the Brookings Institution, said in an analysis prepared by the think tank and sent to journalists in advance of Sunday's polls.

"Like Putin in Russia, Berlusconi dominated Italian politics," Hill wrote. "Berlusconi's brand had been tarnished for a long time, but he was still the most popular individual politician in a fractious Italian political scene." Like Putin, Berlusconi "stifled the opposition...manipulated the media, [and] had mass protests against him. But none of the political opposition seemed to be capable of dislodging him from his perch."

"Putin's brand is similarly tarnished," Hill continued. She noted that the Russian prime minister has watched the country protest his audacity to seek a new six-year term as president. The Russian leader was president from 2000 to 2008 and then became the prime minister for the past four years, as he was barred from seeking a third consecutive presidential term. But, noted Hill, "the international markets are not likely to turn against Mr. Putin. No one else can get rid of him."

As to what Putin's expected return to the Russian presidency may mean for U.S.-Russian relations, Hill noted that U.S. President Barack Obama has almost no relationship with Putin, having dealt primarily with his counterpart, outgoing Russian president Dmitri Medvedev, generally considered more moderate. And Putin, a former KGB colonel, is said to be suspicious of Russia's former Cold War nemesis.

"Putin genuinely believes that the U.S. would like to oust him from power," she said. Whoever wins the presidential election in November will have a tough time dealing with the Russian leader and forging a good relationship.

(Putin's campaign recently ran racy videos wooing "first-time" Russian voters to vote for him, Agence France Press reported. Berlusconi, 74, has been facing possible criminal charges for allegedly paying for sex with a 17-year-old Moroccan runaway prostitute, the Guardian reported.)

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