One thing is sure about Putin: he is smart, very smart. You have to be, to maintain order over nine time zones, and stay at the top of the inner fightings of competing factions among the siloviki, desperate to protect the millions they have at stake from Russia’s economic boom. Putin has proved himself uniquely able to adroitly balance the various strategic interests of the competing parties. He has so far been a master at managing divisions within the government — and Russians know this.
For all the West’s predictions of Putin’s impending demise and Russia’s economic collapse should he chose to stick to his ways for his third term, there is plenty of evidence that he has stayed on top of his game and has managed the economy quite adroitly, given the global conditions. Despite being hit hard, Russia, after all, has weathered rather well both the 1998 and more recent financial crises, and growth can be seen on every corner (literally, if to take a walk along Moscow and other cities’ mega-construction projects-strewn streets).
This is not to say that it is all rosy, nor to defend the system. All agree that Russia is overly reliant on its vast supplies of natural gas, oil, and precious metals, and statistics on the disparity between rich and poor show a widening gulf, to cite but two of the chronic ills.
Truth is, if Russia decides to pull the plug on its gas and oil supplies, it is Europe that will be sitting in the dark. The country still commands immense power, and it knows it. With this in mind, Western and Russian experts’ dire warnings of Russia’s imminent “death” if it does not diversify its economy — that have dominated their forecasts for virtually the past two decades — have clearly not come to pass. The country is sitting on some of the world’s largest natural resources, and even though it is heavily reliant on Western technology and know-how to exploit them (the growing number of U.S. technology firms setting up shop in Russia is in fact evidence that U.S.-Russian business relations are doing great), its economy seems to be doing more than fine — including under Putin’s rule.
In the same breath as its cries for the Russian economy to diversify, the West has been ardently calling for Russia to democratize, and similarly predicting doomsday scenarios if it doesn’t. While both endeavors are not only laudable but also needed, they are often accompanied by a naïve, nearly-childish belief that every little sign of change in society spells the beginning of the end for Russia’s authoritarian system and Russians’ full, definitive embrace of democracy. This has been most notably on display within the context of the anti-government protests that shook the streets of major Russian cities and the Russian Internet in the wake of the controversial legislative and presidential elections of December 2011 and March of this year, respectively, with the U.S. and other Western media providing enthusiastic, in-depth coverage of the demonstrations across the country.
Perhaps still inebriated by the democratic successes of the popular uprisings in many repressed regimes of the world over the past year, some Western observers have been quick to draw comparisons with the Arab Spring protests, despite the vast differences in the context, motives, and goals of these nations.
If to single out one key difference that is particular to the Russian context, I would cite the sense of doomed resignation and resulting passivity that seem to be embedded in the Russian national “soul,” especially when it comes to politics. Barely a week after Putin’s victory, the admittedly substantial gatherings of demonstrators that had choked some of Moscow’s streets and squares in the three weeks following the parliamentary election in late 2011 had dwindled to a mere 10,000 or so people, according to The Los Angeles Times and other media reports.
This article is the second in a series on Russia’s presidential election, popular street protests, and Putin’s new presidency.