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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.

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Anti-Americanism is rampant. The Kremlin-controlled media launched a Stalinist propaganda attack against US Ambassador Michael McFaul, ironically, the architect of the Obama “reset” policy.

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Meanwhile, crony capitalism and power concentration continue unabated. Putin keeps the former Yukos oil company owner and democracy advocate Mikhail Khodorkovsky in jail. A kangaroo court in 2010 handed down a second sentence to make sure he and his associates remain out of circulation until 2017.

To avoid becoming Brezhnev 2.0, Putin 4.0 will need to stabilize Russia by diffusing discontent, addressing the nation’s modernization and infrastructure investment needs, and further integrating it into the global economy. But the first essential step is to conduct presidential elections in a transparent manner. On Sunday, it is the process, not its outcome that will matter the most.

After that, Putin will need to undertake systemic reforms based on political participation, such as elections not just of governors – which are being restored – but also of the mayors of St. Petersburg and Moscow, who are effectively appointed by the president. Maybe it is time for a new, less czar-like constitution. Single-mandate districts (as in the US and Britain), as opposed to national party lists, for the Duma elections and an elected Senate would tighten the ties between voters and elected officials, too.

Russia is too big to be ruled from the Kremlin only. Some of these steps will be taken by the Duma, but much more needs to be tackled.

Can Putin address the woeful state of courts, security services, and police? They are regarded as protection rackets and bribe-sucking “vacuum cleaners.” Reform has been promised often over the last decades, but little has changed. The militia was renamed police. New designer uniforms were issued to the cops. But that’s about it. Yet, corruption is the rot that destroys the heart of Russia and keeps all but the largest investors away.

To facilitate the anti-corruption drive, Putin needs to relinquish the tight grip of national TV channels and other media. Attacks on the free Echo Moskvy radio station must stop, along with newspaper part-owner Alexander Lebedev's crusading and muck-racking at Novaya Gazeta.Today, people can get information from social media, thus Soviet-style repression is obsolete.


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