In the two months since returning to the Russian presidency, Vladimir Putin has pursued a stunningly retrograde agenda with stunning alacrity.

“… it has taken no more than 60 days to reverse the few timid positive steps on civil and political freedom that took place during the Medvedev interregnum,” writes Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch.

Putin’s United Russia party has blitzed parliament with bills to impose massive fines for violating public assembly rules, recriminalize libel, expand the government’s power to restrict Web content – especially regarding gay and lesbian issues – and require internationally-funded civic groups to register as “foreign agents,” which connotes “foreign spy” in Russian, Denber notes. Today, these separate measures are either law or fast on their way to becoming law.

So, to sum up, in just over 60 days Putin has taken on freedom of association and assembly, freedom of the press, and freedom of expression. And all this while launching a campaign of arrest and intimidation against the growing opposition movement that has seen tens of thousands of Russians take to the street since December to challenge Putin’s rule. Shudder at what the next 12 years could bring.

Then came the feckless response to the floods in southern Russia earlier this month that claimed at least 171 lives. Not only did authorities fail to adequately warn the public despite having sufficient warning themselves of looming catastrophe; evidently, they didn’t see much need to.

“Do you think, my dears, that we should have gotten to each one of you?” a regional authority told an angry crowd of survivors, according to a report for The New Yorker by Masha Lipman. “This is impossible!”

As the latest in a series of bungled disaster responses since the Kursk submarine sunk in 2000, the floods have amplified public distrust in a government that seems disinterested in everything but holding power and stamping on human rights. Civic groups have stepped up to fill the leadership void, with “the Moscow protesters’ community,” as Lipman calls it, and other activists leading an unprecedented volunteer relief effort.

“As the government is losing credibility, civil society is building trust,” Lipman writes.

This reflects what some see as a tipping point in Russia. The humiliation and demoralization and rapid backsliding of Putin’s return have awakened Russians to the reality that political transformation must come from the grass roots. And, in this way, Putin might have just become his own worst enemy.

“… Putin has singlehandedly quashed the long-held myth that he himself propagated: personalized power can modernize the country while preserving stability,” writes Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. “After waiting 12 years for change from the top, Russians finally understand that their political system can be transformed only from the bottom – through popular revolution.”

 Photo from flickr

S. Adam Cardais

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Email: adam.cardais@tol.org.

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