MOSCOW—When President Vladimir Putin recently booted one of his top advisers out of a key post, many Kremlin-watchers thought the man probably had it coming.
After all, liberal economist Andrei Illarionov had used the indelicate phrase "scam of the year" to describe the government's gutting of oil giant Yukos. He also had ridiculed the Kremlin's bungled interventions in the recent Ukrainian presidential election.
But Putin's demotion of the naughty Illarionov from his inner circle was far more than an overdue wrist slap or personnel shuffle, analysts said.
And it begged the larger, nagging question: Where is Putin taking Russia?
Firing Illarionov muzzled the only discordant voice on the Kremlin policy team, in another ominous sign that Putin, a former KGB officer, will tolerate no further dissent as he continues to roll back democratic and economic reforms while increasing the political powers of the presidency.
"We're in a downward spiral, and it's a tragedy," said Alexei Kondaurov, a former KGB general who's now a millionaire businessman and an opposition member of the Duma, Russia's lower house of Parliament. "I have no illusions about who rules Russia and what goes on here. All my forecasts are negative."
Nikolai Zlobin, an analyst with the Center for Defense Information, a global-security research center based in Washington, thinks "the United States no longer regards Russia as a democratic country ... and Putin is no longer perceived as a democrat in the Western sense of the word."
Others share that view.
The conservative British magazine The Economist recently suggested in an editorial that "it is time to see Mr. Putin as a challenger, and not a friend."
In its 2005 annual report, the U.S.-based rights group Freedom House demoted Russia to its "not free" category for the first time since the days of the Soviet Union.
Freedom House cited "a dark and dangerous drift toward authoritarianism."
Putin's term for the Russian political system is "managed democracy."
"And the degree of management certainly continues to grow," said a senior U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The most recent examples of that heavy-handed management include the ruthless dismantling of Yukos, the Kremlin's Soviet-style blunderings in the Ukraine election and shocking new laws that dramatically increase presidential authority.
The attacks on Yukos have been especially alarming to Western governments. It didn't help investor confidence that Yukos' most valuable asset, an oil-drilling company in Siberia, was auctioned off by the government and now belongs to a state-owned company, Rosneft.
The Rosneft chairman just happens to be the mysterious Igor Sechin, a reputed KGB veteran said to be Putin's closest aide inside the Kremlin.
One senior U.S. official, who asked not to be identified, admitted that "we don't have a clear sense of where people line up" within the Kremlin these days, but diplomats worry openly about the growing numbers of siloviki—former KGB, police and state security officers—being installed behind the Kremlin ramparts.
Most Western officials stop short of suggesting a totalitarian future for Russia, and the senior American diplomat said "there's no agreed-upon label we're using within the U.S. government" to describe Russia today.
One telling semantic shift has taken place, however: Western diplomats in Moscow used to refer to "the Putin administration." Now they're just as likely to call it "the regime."
"Some people are calling it soft or creeping authoritarianism," the diplomat said. "We're certainly seeing more authoritarian trends while they try to maintain the shell of democracy. The trends are certainly negative on many fronts."
One big positive remains: Putin's close personal relationship with President Bush.
Still, there's said to be increasing skepticism in the White House about Putin's true political nature, and some conservative hardliners in Washington want Russia suspended from the G8 group of major industrialized nations.
The appointment of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state could ease some of the tensions. A former academic who specialized in Soviet affairs, Rice speaks fluent Russian.
"Russians are always worried about the unknown, and they're pleased to have her as a well-known quantity, someone they've dealt with," said the veteran U.S. diplomat.
Even if there's an international thaw, domestically it's the winter of discontent for Russia's fragmented opposition. While liberal politicians dither and bicker and further alienate their own base of support, Putin's team rolls on.
The Kremlin's control of the Duma through the United Russia party has allowed Putin to continue to amass immense powers within the presidency. He has the votes to amend the constitution and allow himself a third presidential term starting in 2008, but says he won't do that.
One new law canceled direct elections of Russia's regional governors and allows the president to nominate them, which effectively amounts to appointive power. If the regional parliaments don't elect Putin's designated choices, he can dissolve the parliaments themselves.
Another new measure bans independent legislators. Candidates running for the Duma now must belong to national political parties.
At the same time, recent amendments to election laws have made it much more difficult—some say nearly impossible—for new parties to officially register. One fresh stipulation is that parties must collect 50,000 sworn signatures.
"This is just as absurd as asking a woman to give birth to a good-looking 20-year-old with a university degree, a knowledge of foreign languages and good manners," independent Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov said in an interview with Novaya Gazeta.
Ryzhkov said United Russia legislators were routinely threatened, bribed and told how to vote. Their "servility ... in this toady Duma" ensures the passage of virtually any measure the government proposes.
"They are kept in a state of fear," Ryzhkov said. "The business owners among them understand—in the wake of the Yukos affair—that they stand to lose both their Duma seats and their companies if they disobey.
"Fear and bribery: These are ancient methods, but still effective."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): PUTIN
Need to map