Monday, December 26, 2011

Twenty years later, with Putin, the Soviet model still prevails in Russia

Those of us here in America have watched Putin slowly consolidate his power base and take Russia steadily back to the Russia of old. Now it appears that the Russian people have awakened and are demonstrating against the corruption of the Putin regime. Will it be enough, or will the people of Russia again be subjected to the will of an elite few?

Post-Soviet Russia in the 1990s was a brutish, free-for-all crony capitalist state. To be sure, the revolution had certainly achieved more freedoms for ordinary Russians and more opportunities, but the common man sensed something was wrong, something was amiss amid the oligarch deals and the declining growth rates and the whiplash economy. Older Russians pined nostalgically for a mythical past.

Enter Vladimir Putin, a former KGB man of the old guard, willing to knock heads with the "new guard" elite that looked to many Russians like mere opportunists, and spinning a narrative that Russia could be "great" once again, as it was in Soviet days. Of course, there was nothing "great" about a state that had killed more than 20 million of its people in forced famines, secret prisons and gulags, dramatically underperformed its economic potential, crushed all forms of dissent, and subjugated peoples across Eastern and Central Europe through violence and intimidation.

But history did not matter. The chest-thumping nationalist on a white horse had arrived. The Russian cavalry would make Russia "great" again, and the KGB man with a taste for daredevil sports and manly displays of strength stormed through Russian politics.

The economic growth numbers were impressive. The former Communist state had become fashionable in investment circles. It made up a letter in the most famous acronym in the history of investing: the BRICs. Mr Putin seemed genuinely popular. He won elections with relative ease.

But the old KGB man never seemed comfortable with the free flow of ideas and opposition and political differences that come with a democracy. He preferred "managed democracy", one that limited candidates and muzzled opponents and silenced noisy media critics. It seemed to work through his first eight years in office, but when his mandated terms came to an end, he chose not to leave the stage. He lurked in the background as "prime minister" and now has announced another run for the presidency next year.

A sizeable number of Russians have grown weary of the Putin show and all that it entails: the "managed" media, the "managed" democracy and the "managed" economy. They are weary of the corruption: Russia stands alongside Nigeria and Uganda in the Transparency International Index of corruption - nothing "great" about that company.

And so Mr Putin faces his most critical test to date. On Saturday, some 100,000 Russians took to the streets of Moscow to protest what they deemed a rigged parliamentary election earlier this month. Mr Putin's United Russia party won nearly 50 per cent of the vote, a fall from their near two-thirds majority in the 2007 elections, but still a cause of suspicion among Russia's emerging middle class.

In 1991, in those fateful weeks, decades happened. While the stand-off today is likely to be less dramatic, the opposition protests represent the most vital test for the post-Soviet state since the rise of Putin 12 years ago. The next few weeks and months will decide Russia's coming decades.

Read full article here.

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