PUTIN AND THE RUSSIAN ROULETTE
THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN | NYT NEWS SERVICE
AS a journalist, the best part of covering the recent wave of protests and uprisings against autocrats is seeing stuff you never imagined you’d see – like, in Moscow last week, when some opponents of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s plans to become president again, possibly for 12 more years, hung a huge yellow banner on a rooftop facing the Kremlin with Putin’s face covered by a big X, next to the words “Putin Go Away” in Russian.
The sheer brazenness of such protests and the anger at Putin among the urban middle classes here for treating them like idiots by just announcing that he and President Dmitry Mevedev were going to switch jobs were unthinkable a year ago. The fact that the youths who put up the banner were apparently not jailed also bespeaks how much Putin understands that he is on very thin ice and can’t afford to create any “martyrs” that would enrage the antigovernment protesters, who gathered again in Moscow on Saturday.
But what will Putin do next? Will he really fulfill his promise to let new parties emerge or just wait out his opposition, which is divided and still lacks a real national leader? Putin’s Russia is at a crossroads. It has become a “sort-of-but-not-reallycountry.” Russia today is sort of a democracy, but not really. It’s sort of a free market, but not really. It sort of has the rule of law to protect businesses, but not really. It’s sort of a European country, but not really. It has sort of a free press, but not really.
Its Cold War with America is sort of over, but not really. It’s sort of trying to become something more than a petro-state, but not really.
Putin himself is largely responsible for both the yin and the yang.
When he became president in 2000, Russia was not sort of in trouble. It was really in trouble – and spiralling downward. Using an iron fist, Putin restored order and solidified the state, but it was cemented not by real political and economic reforms but rather by a massive increase in oil prices and revenues.
Nevertheless, many Russians were, and still are, grateful.
Along the way, Putin spawned a new wealthy corrupt clique around him, but he also ensured that enough of Russia’s oil and mineral bounty trickled down to the major cities, creating a small urban middle class that is now demanding a greater say in its future. But Putin is now stalled. He’s brought Russia back from the brink, but he’s been unable to make the political, economic and educational changes needed to make Russia a modern European state.
Russia has that potential. It is poised to go somewhere. But will Putin lead? The Times’ Moscow bureau chief, Ellen Barry, and I had a talk recently at the Russian White House with Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov. I left uncertain.
All these urban protests, said Peskov, are a sign that economic growth has moved ahead of political reform, and that can be fixed: “Ten years ago, we didn’t have any middle class. They were thinking about how to buy a car, how to buy a flat, how to open bank accounts, how to pay for their children to go to a private school, and so on and so forth. Now they have got it, and the interesting part of the story is that they want to be involved much more in political life.” OK, sounds reasonable. But what about Putin’s suggestion that the protests were part of a US plot to weaken him and Russia. Does Peskov really believe that? “I don’t believe that. I know it,” said Peskov. Money to destabilise Russia has been coming in “from Washington officially and non-officially ... to support different organisations ... to provoke the situation.
We are not saying it just to say it. We are saying it because we know. ... We knew two or three years in advance that the next day after parliamentary elections ((last December)) ..
we will have people saying these elections are not legitimate.” This is either delusional or really cynical. And then there’s foreign policy. Putin was very helpful at the United Nations in not blocking the no-fly zone over Libya, but he feels burned by it – that we went from protecting civilians to toppling his ally and arms customer, Moamer Qadhafi. It’s true. But what an ally! What a thing to regret! And, now, the more Putin throws his support behind the murderous dictatorship of Bashar al Assad in Syria, the more he looks like a person buying a round-trip ticket on the Titanic – after it has already hit the iceberg. Assad is a dead man walking.
Even if all you care about are arms sales, wouldn’t Russia want to align itself with the emerging forces in Syria? “There is a strong domestic dimension to Russian policy toward Syria,” said Vladimir Frolov, a Russian foreign policy expert. “If we allow the UN and the US to put pressure on a regime – that is somewhat like ours – to cede power to the opposition, what kind of precedent could that create?” This approach to the world does not bode well for reform at home, added Frolov. “Putin was built for one-way conversations,” he said. He has overseen “a very personalised, paternalistic system based on arbitrariness.” Real reform will require a huge reset on Putin’s part. Could it happen? Does he get it? On the evidence available now, I’d say: sort of, but not really.