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Will Putin understand Russia?

Published on April 12, 2012 by: in: Politics

Will the new (old) Russian president be able to accept challenges that are created for him by the protesting nation and that contradict the ruling philosophy that he has pursued so far? Russia is changing – Russia that will happen to be ruled by Vladimir Putin is now completely different from Russia from the times when he first became elected president. The key question concerning his presidency is if he will be able to understand that country.

Filling in for ill Boris Yeltsin in 2000, Vladimir Putin faced an extremely difficult task, which could not be handled earlier by the pro-democratic movements. Russia was still unable to recover after the fall of the USSR. The decisions of central government were often blocked by the old regional terminology. In such cases, an unscrupulous KGB ex-spy turned out to be an almost ideal man. Putin managed to consolidate Russia and by using different methods he managed to restore central government’s power over regional authorities. He also gained control over oligarchs and chaos. Financial crisis of 1998 turned out to be advantageous as it required numerous radical financial changes to be made. Economic boom on the raw materials markets additionally stabilized the country’s situation.

Having experienced market collapse, hyperinflation at the beginning of the 90s, neoliberal reforms of Gaidar government, 1998 crisis which devoured most citizens’ savings, the Russian society could finally breathe a sigh of relief for the first time. The initial zest for reforms, strong-arm government and economic success caused Vladimir Vladimirovich to become country’s most popular politician.

No wonder that his election campaign emphasized continuation, stability and predictability. In the country, in industrial cities, which are numerous in Russia, Putin is still a symbol of regularly paid salary, retirement pension, occasional bonuses; he is a guarantee of employment and social security. This part of society is still afraid of having to come back to the chaos from the 90s, as it affected them the most.

This historical factor – Russia’s political tradition – is the thing that is not to be ignored. We have to remember that recently this country have been experiencing the greatest freedom in its history and democracy controlled by Putin is the least oppressive system in the centuries-old history of Russia.

There is no need to explain how difficult it is to fight the excessive red tape in Poland. Vast state administration that Russia inherited from the USSR is one of the factors inhibiting changes. In the USSR the real power was exercised by party office jargon, bearing slight responsibility towards citizens. This feeling of impunity holds until today. One of the remnants of the previous system is also enormous corruption, permeating the state government from the top posts to the lowest ones. Unfortunately, it is often perceived as a compensation for low salary and it is currently accepted not only by officials but also by citizens. Fighting corruption, changing officials’ mentality, training new staff and developing new rules for administration are the most significant goals that Russia must try to achieve.

Protests of Russian society, especially of the young, well-educated and quite well earning middle class, are the aftermath of the ongoing modernizations in this country. Having achieved economic stability, those people start to demand more civil rights. Travelling throughout the world and using the Internet open their eyes to the deficiencies of the Russian democracy. So far they have demanded little – fair elections, free media, respect of the government and transparency of its actions. So far they have been organizing demonstrations and happenings. So far.

photo: Freedom House

photo: Freedom House

Putin has been given a warning sign. At the beginning he made one mistake after another: first, he ignored the protesting crowd, then he said “Come to me, you Bandar-logs”, suggesting that the protesters are paid from abroad to destabilize the country. He also compared the white ribbons – the symbol of the crowd gathered at the square – to condoms. All these statements were used by the oppositionists to deride Putin on the banners and on the Internet.

Ultimately, however, Vladimir Vladimirovich made an about-turn and declared that he was eager to start negotiations with the representatives of the “League of Voters” – an organization that was created during protests with the aim to fight for human rights. It is hard to speculate now what extent of liberalization is Putin going to accept. Nonetheless, each case of him making his stand stricter may again mobilize people to even greater protests, the effects of which are unpredictable.

Will the new (old) Russian president be able to accept challenges that are created for him by the protesting nation and that contradict the ruling philosophy that he has pursued so far? Russia is changing – Russia that will happen to be ruled by Vladimir Putin is now completely different from Russia from the times when he first became elected president. The key question concerning his presidency is if he will be able to understand that country.

Translation: Marta Gajda

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