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Russia’s Choice

by David Satter

Will it establish democracy at last or let Vladimir Putin rule for life?

On the surface, Moscow has never looked more prosperous. High-end restaurants are full. Cyclists, strollers, and rollerbladers crowd Gorky Park. Newly built skyscrapers give the city a modern skyline, and streets are clogged with late-model Western cars. But there is a growing sense of unease. Against the background of plummeting oil prices and vast sums of money being urgently sent abroad, the capital is now the scene of feverish political activity. For the first time, Vladimir Putin’s system of one-man rule appears unstable. No one knows whether it can survive or, if it doesn’t, what will replace it.

After years when opposition demonstrations typically attracted no more than a few hundred, Moscow since December has witnessed at least six major demonstrations that have drawn crowds estimated at 50,000 to 100,000. Nothing like this has happened in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. The protesters openly refer to Putin as a “thief,” an explosive charge in a society where Putin is suspected of massive corruption but the accusation is typically not made publicly.

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