Cracks in Putin's kingdom
Serious voices in Russia are doubting his judgment on Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
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The criticisms highlight a difference in vision within the Russian ruling elite. They come from modernizers who see Russia, like it or not, as part of the international community, and want Russia to move beyond the current corrupt state capitalism and stifling bureaucracy.Skip to next paragraph
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These people fear that Russia has already become embroiled in a new cold war that will distract from economic development and lead to a rollback of personal liberties. "We need to clearly realize that the main aim of the game that has been imposed on us, consciously or unconsciously, is to wreck Russia's modernization," Karaganov wrote in a bleak follow-up piece to the recognition.
Those making these arguments are sophisticated members of the political establishment. They apparently have no problem with a Kremlin policy that limits the sovereignty of Russia's neighbors. Independence does not, in other words, mean freedom to choose your own alliances if you share a frontier with Russia.
These voices expect the real crisis to come when attention shifts to Ukraine. They have not commented on the discrepancy between Putin's determination to protect Russian citizens, no matter where they live, now and the way he oversaw a campaign at the beginning of the decade that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Russian citizens in Chechnya. And they agree with Putin's argument, advanced in recent interviews, that a dark Western conspiracy was behind the Georgia conflict.
What they implicitly reproach Putin for, however, is the fact that he was taken in by the supposed plot; this, they feel will have profound consequences for the country's development.
An even bigger problem, perhaps, is that Putin is looking backward.
He can best be characterized by the term "sovok," one of those many-layered pieces of word play in which Russians delight. In this case, it can be summarized as someone who embodies the dark and circumscribed world view of the Soviet man in the street, suspicious of the outside world, resentful, who holds a grudge and remembers a slight. Putin speaks passionately about the "tragedy" of the Soviet Union's collapse, a personally scarring time when he found himself unemployed.
He trusts very few people. Aides say he makes policy on key issues – Georgia, Ukraine, NATO – himself, along with a small circle, and tends to improvise. He shows little interest in the Russian stock market, which has taken a battering since the outbreak of the Georgia crisis, while most of the mega-rich, many of them close associates, have attained their fortune by obeying one rule: Do exactly what Putin says.
In the past, everybody obeyed this rule, and many in the ruling elite were genuinely convinced that he was the right leader for these times. Now, doubts are creeping in, and people are bracing themselves for tense years. The strong man has started to show his weaknesses.