As Putin took the oath to become President, an office he first occupied 12 years ago, he said that serving Russia “was the meaning of my whole life”. If that is the case then he certainly has done a good job so far. During the Putin era, Russia has changed considerably. The country has doubled its GDP, paid off its foreign loans, reasserted its regional influence and tricked the Russian citizens into thinking that Russia is an authentic democracy.
Yet not all is well in the quest for Putin to serve Russia without any hindrance. The protests seem to be only growing in strength and their cry for political representation and respect is growing louder. Putin could have left politics 12 years ago as a hero and as one of the best leaders of Russia. Yet he decided to come back for more and test the crowd’s patience. To understand why Putin decided to do that is not easy as not much is known about the man behind the steal exterior.
By observing how he ruled the state of Russia during his first term as President, it is possible to argue that Putin is certainly power hungry and has an uncontrollable need to regulate power using the institutions he built up himself. As his time as President wore on around the year 2004, Putin succumbed to the urges to consolidate control and purge potential rivals. The money which flooded in through oil and gas sales certainly helped Putin to stamp his authority and more importantly keep the Russian citizens happy by increasing their wages and pensions. The price that the people had to pay was authoritarian control under Putin and a lack of decent opposition, be it political opposition or a truly free press.
In exchange for loyalty (often in the form of votes), officials further down the bureaucratic chain, from regional governors to local police chiefs, can oversee their fiefdoms however they like, collecting millions or allowing abuse to flourish. On a more international level, the current Chechnya President Ramzan Kadyrov also sits in the pocket of Putin as he said in the Russian newspaper in 2009: “I am wholly Putin’s man. I shall never betray him; I shall never let him down. I would rather die 20 times.” Ultimately Putin has built a peculiar set of relationships. His game plan is: support me and I might support you back. Disobey me and you will regret it. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former multi billionaire Russian tycoon who was put in prison certainly learned the hard way not to disobey Putin.
Nevertheless, how will Putin be able to deal with the masses of protestors who disobey him? Russia’s profound economic and social transformation during Putin’s tenure has created for the first time a true middle class, largely comprised of educated urban professionals living in Moscow. As this section of Russian society has become more secure financially, they are beginning to worry about having a political voice. The recent upsurge in technological advances and internet access in Russia, with greater access to the Western media, has also helped to ensure that the middle class ask for more.
It is ironic how the same people who want Putin out are the ones who have to thank him for ensuring their economic and social stability. Some may call them ungrateful, yet in every normal democracy, it is the citizen’s right to ask for fair elections and last December’s parliamentary elections which were marked by widespread evidence of falsification certainly didn’t not meet the standard required by the people of Russia. The problem does not merely lie within the confines of urban cities; rising standards of living in small villages are leading to higher expectations and local grievances, whether about poor infrastructure or particularly corrupt officials with discontent directed back at Russia.
The way Putin has dealt with the above problems is simple: he has provided the citizens with choices and freedoms everywhere except politics. The Russians can now afford to open their own business, travel abroad on holiday and become part of the consumers as witnessed in the West. As long as the citizens are given the freedom to make something decent out of their lives, not many of them will bother protesting in the freezing Russian streets. Having said that, if Russia continues to feel the effects of the global economic crisis and financial stability continues to falter, the citizens may turn on Putin at the flick of a finger.
We are still yet to see where Putin takes Russia during his new Presidential term in office. If he plays his cards right, he may still keep his status as one of the best politicians in the country. However, if his bluff fails, he may end up going from hero to zero and he would have nobody to blame but himself.