The first cracks have appeared in the façade of massive public support in Russia for Vladimir Putin. The reaction in Russia to his nomination for a third term as president was muted, and in a rare show of public disapproval, Putin was booed at a recent martial-arts match in Moscow. The reason is that the Putin era was built on pretense, but without the advantage of the Soviet era’s complete control over information. Inevitably, the pretense is beginning to wear thin.
The first charade was, of course, the Medvedev presidency. Many in the West put faith in Medvedev’s liberal statements. But Medvedev was a long-time Putin factotum elevated to the presidency because he could be completely controlled. His associates were always in secondary positions, and he never had access to the critical levers of power. Nonetheless, from a certain perspective, the Medvedev “presidency” made sense. Had Putin openly torn up Russia’s constitution and stayed in power, Russia’s imitation of democracy would have been totally untenable, and such naïve exercises as the U.S. “reset” policy would hardly have been possible.
The second charade was directed against the Russian people. It attributed all prosperity to Putin and disassociated Putin from the hardships experienced by Russians in the 1990s. In fact, Russia’s remarkable economic growth under Putin was based on the raw-materials boom of the 2000s — of which Russia was the world’s outstanding beneficiary. At the same time, Putin was himself implicated in the criminalization of Russia during the 1990s. The turning point in his career came in 1998 when, as the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), he organized the entrapment of the Russian prosecutor general, Yuri Skuratov, who was seriously investigating corruption charges against Boris Yeltsin’s closest associates.
For years, the Putin masquerade assured him the support of a country whose people had traditionally lived in poor conditions. This changed in the 2000s, when the long-deferred dream of a European standard of living began to seem possible. But with the global economic crisis, the boom came to an end, and all that was left was the pretense and a predatory kleptocratic elite determined to hold onto power at all costs. This is why signs of discontent, including the recent booing of Putin at the martial-arts match, are not an anomaly. The revised Russian constitution allows Putin to rule for another twelve years, but Russia is changing in spite of him. And as the official lies lose their allure, a confrontation in Russia between rulers and ruled will become all but inevitable.
— David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a fellow of the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He is the author of It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway.