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Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a news conference after the talks with Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, Russia November 13, 2017. REUTERS/Pavel Golovkin/Pool(reuters_tickers)
By Andrew Osborn
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Poised to run for a fourth term, President Vladimir Putin has started clearing out the old Russian political elite and says he's bringing in young people with "fire in their eyes."
But a Reuters analysis shows that he has made limited progress so far.
In the run up to March elections that are expected to hand him a mandate to stay in power until he is 70, Putin says he is promoting a new generation of officials to drive Russia's economic and political future.
One fifth of the country's 85 regional governors have been replaced this year and almost half of the lower house of parliament changed in elections last year after Putin brought in a new chief of staff.
The Reuters analysis of political appointments shows, however, that in the cabinet, the upper house of parliament, the Security Council and the presidential administration, the pace of change has slowed and the average age is almost three years higher than when he began his third term in 2012.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the findings. He said it would take too long to check the data.
With no change expected at the very top, critics say the lack of fresh blood translates into a dearth of fresh ideas to stimulate politics and the economy.
"There are similarities with the era of (Soviet leader Leonid) Brezhnev in that we've fallen into a malign stability from which there's no way out," Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent political analyst, told Reuters.
Opposition protesters are fond of photoshopping Putin's face onto Brezhnev's torso on placards, implying that Putin and the system he has built is as stagnant as Brezhnev's Soviet Union, a charge the Kremlin rejects.
"For Putin there are no risks because the system works and obeys him," said Oreshkin. "The risks are for the country and the economy. The model of stability is underpinned by a system of loyalty and corruption. Outside Moscow, which is rich, there is stagnation."
Weighed down by Western sanctions for its 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea and backing for a pro-Russian uprising in east Ukraine, the Russian economy, though recovering, remains fragile and vulnerable to oil fluctuations and new sanctions.
Reuters compared the profiles of 784 current regional governors, members of the upper and lower houses of parliament, the government, the Security Council, and the presidential administration -- to 768 who were in power in May 2012.
It found little sign of renewal in the cabinet, the upper house of parliament, the Security Council and the presidential administration.
Of the 784 positions, 314 had changed hands in the last two years, fewer than in May 2012 when that figure was 368. Often when officials left their posts, they showed up in other jobs.
There were fewer changes in the cabinet, the upper house of parliament, the Security Council and the presidential administration.
The average age of all the officials rose from 52.6 in 2012 to 55.5 now.
In the Security Council, which Putin chairs, the average age stands at 60.4. It has seen only two changes in its 12-strong permanent makeup in the last two years.
In the presidential administration, which Putin uses to devise and implement his ideas, the average age is 57 compared to 53.2 in 2012, and in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, the average age has risen to almost 53 from 51 five years ago.
This month Putin told 10 governors, that "as a rule" they were being replaced with "young people."
"You have probably noticed the fire in their eyes," he said.
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Putin has said his aim is to create "a new governors corps of young promising modern people who will think about the future of the region and all of Russia."
Critics say the Kremlin's emphasis on youth is window-dressing designed to create the illusion of political change in a system bereft of real competition.
Up to two thirds of Russians want some kind of societal or political change that would raise living standards, some opinion polls show, and turnout in last year's parliamentary election fell to a post-Soviet low.
"In the Kremlin, the thinking goes that a fresh face in the governor's seat may reduce the population's unhappiness and increase turnout in the election," Natalya Zubarevich, an academic, wrote in a paper for the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Putin has received a succession of newly-minted regional governors in his Kremlin office live on state TV and hosted two groups of glum-looking ex-governors.
"Rotation is a natural and self-evident process," he told one group of five ex-governors in February.
Putin's aides are also touting a programme for new leaders.
Applicants must be under 50 years of age and parts of the 9-month training programme for top regional officials emphasise fitness and courage. Videos leaked to the RBC online news portal have shown participants leaping from a cliff into a river seven metres below and undergoing weapons and parachute training.
Some Kremlin watchers say the newcomers are all Putin loyalists whom he can easily influence if he exits office in 2024 and assumes a father-of-the-nation role.
"He's training up 30- and 40-year olds for whom he'll become a political father," Sergei Dorenko, the prominent head of a Moscow radio station, told the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily. "He'll smooth their passage and give them the earth."
(Editing by Anna Willard)