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Russian elections: Putin 4.0 at a crossroads

After Russian elections on Sunday, expect what amounts to a fourth term for Putin. But Putin 4.0 faces a tough choice. His KGB officer instincts call for tightening the grip. But Russia's future – and thousands of protesters – demand greater freedom and reforms.

By Ariel Cohen / March 1, 2012

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin listens during a cabinet meeting in Moscow March 1. He could boost education and make Russia more attractive to foreign investors, including adopting 'good governance.' Instead, he maintains a confrontational attitude toward protesters and the West.

Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Reuters

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Washington

Only two questions surround the upcoming presidential election in Russia: Will Vladimir Putin win in the first round or the second? And how big will the post-election protests be?

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The election outcome is not in doubt, but Russia’s future is. Аnd this is important for the US and the rest of the world, as Russia is the biggest country on the planet and the second largest nuclear power.

Unless Mr. Putin addresses the nation’s serious problems, which have been accumulating for 20 years, Russia may slide into stagnation similar to what the Soviet Union experienced under Leonid Brezhnev in the mid-1970s and ’80s. Or worse, it could blow up in a bloody revolt.

This will be effectively Putin’s fourth term. The first two spanned 2000-08, and protégé Dmitry Medvedev’s term was really Putin’s third.

Extraordinary luck, stemming from high oil prices and the resultant cash flow, as well as prudent economic policies by ex-Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, have raised Russians’ living standard under Putin’s rule. Yet the limits of the resource-extracting economy are clear.

But instead of boosting education and making Russia attractive to foreign investment and domestic entrepreneurs, Putin and Mr. Medvedev have neglected the vital software on which the modern state runs: good governance, the rule of law, efficient bureaucracy, and personal freedom. Putin’s pre-election missives harken back to 19th century nationalism and imperialism.

Empires come at a cost. Russia’s Soviet-era infrastructure – roads, airports, and power stations – are falling apart. Trillions of dollars in capital investment are needed. But that’s not where Putin has spent the money.

Instead, he has chosen to confront the West and the Arab world over Syria and Iran. He announced a $700 billion rearmament program. He calls political opponents “jackals scavenging in front of foreign embassies” and “monkey packs,” and chillingly accused them of a planned assassination of one of their own leaders to pin the blame on his regime. He also accused Hillary Rodham Clinton and the State department of paying for recent mass demonstrations to instigate an Arab Spring in Moscow.

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