In July Foreign Policy published an interesting article by Russia expert Leon Aron entitled “Everything You Think You Know About the Collapse of the Soviet Union is Wrong.” Aron argues that economic and geo-political weaknesses weren’t behind the empire’s fall. Much like today’s Arab uprisings, he writes, the Russian Revolution was an oppressed people’s quest for dignity and freedom. The liberalizing policies of Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s awakened Russians to all that they had been deprived of – self-respect, personal efficacy, accountable representation – and excited a revolutionary spirit that toppled an empire. Aron concludes that a similar tipping point is building today, 11 years into what might be called Russia’s “Putin era,” which could stretch to 2024 following news last week that Vladimir Putin will succeed President Dmitry Medvedev in 2012. Aron:
Russia appears once again to be inching toward another perestroika moment … One needs only to spend a few days in Moscow talking to the intelligentsia or … to take a quick look … at the sites of the top independent and opposition groups to see that the motto of the 1980s – “We cannot live like this any longer!” – is becoming an article of faith again. The moral imperative of freedom is reasserting itself, and not just among the limited circles of pro-democracy activists and intellectuals.
Putin was Russia’s (popular) president from 2000 to 2008, when he asked Medvedev to hold the job for him while he served as premier because the constitution prohibits three consecutive presidential terms. Many hoped Medvedev, seen as a modernizer, would distance himself from the neo-authoritarian Putin and remain for a second term, but it’s clear now that the former KGB officer was holding the strings all along. At first glance, this might not seem so bad. In the 11 years since Putin first ascended to president, millions of Russians saw their lives improve as the economy soared on expensive oil and foreign investment. But they also saw independent media attacked, corruption entrench, the chance to invest those petrodollars into diversifying the economy lost, and, now, the political system mocked along with their intelligence. A 26 September Economist headline was spot on: The Return of Putin: Russia’s Humiliator-in-Chief.
Russia ranks alongside Yemen, Libya and Syria as “Not Free” in Freedom House’s 2011 Freedom in the World survey. As many observers note, Russians talk about the coming “lost years,” or stagnation. Though the economy is growing, over 20 percent of Russians want to emigrate, according to The Economist. Not only is dissatisfaction with Putin and his cronies increasing, an astonishing one-third of Russians “constantly feel like killing officials,” The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) reported in a 27 September analysis. Businesses are pulling billions of dollars out of Russia; foreign investors are skittish. “Putin’s return is the worst of all the probable, possible scenarios,” says a British investor quoted by the ECFR.
How far Putin’s star has fallen. In 2007 he boasted 80 percent approval. The public credited him with rebuilding Russia’s economy after the 1998 debt default that devastated the ruble, living standards and the business environment. And though Putin could be tough on big business – Example A: the Khordokovsky case – investors were fans too.
“If you look at Putin’s track record after seven years of being in power, investors have had a pretty good ride,” an official with the American Chamber of Commerce in Moscow told me then. “They’re feeling quite confident about the future.”
Across Russia, confidence has eroded. Which has me thinking that Putin might want to reconsider his own confidence.
“There is nothing that can stop us now,” Putin told a congress of his United Russia delegates after Medvedev announced his endorsement. “I have not lost my commander’s voice.”
How true, Mr. Putin. But you have evidently lost touch with the voice of the people.
Photo from www.kremlin.ru