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A weakened Putin is questioned abroad, under siege at home

Russia's President-elect Vladimir Putin may have won the presidential election, but he lost Moscow. And he faces an engaged, active generation that did not grow up as Soviets. Political legitimacy is more than an official election result; it requires trust.

By Lucian Kim / April 10, 2012

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin attends a meeting of the guardian council of the Russian Geographic Society in St. Petersburg April 10. Op-ed contributor Lucian Kim aruges that Moscow voters 'dethroned Putin as 'national leader,' and in a country as centralized as Russia, it will only be a matter of time before the provinces follow suit.'

Dmitry Lovetsky/AP



When Vladimir Putin takes the presidential oath of office for a third time on May 7, he will be facing two unexpected new challenges that will rattle and shake his once formidable power base.

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First, Mr. Putin may have won the election in March, sweeping 64 percent of the vote. But he lost the battle for Moscow, where he took less than half the vote. Muscovites have dethroned Putin as “national leader,” and in a country as centralized as Russia, it will only be a matter of time before the provinces follow suit.

Second, the antigovernment protests in Moscow and other cities this winter saw the sudden coming of age of a generation with little, if any, memory of the Soviet Union. These young urban Russians communicate via social networks, travel the world, and are demanding the end of an archaic political system based on loyalty and patronage.

Of course, the Putin machine is hardly about to collapse. Yet the demonstrations sparked by charges of election fraud in December’s parliamentary elections have exposed the vulnerability of a top-down system that depends on one man. 

During his first two terms as president, from 2000 to 2008, Putin enjoyed genuine popularity as an unprecedented rise in oil prices helped fuel a dramatic rise in living standards. His continuing success depends on whether oil prices stay high enough to meet his campaign promises – and the rising expectations of a restless middle class.

Putin tried to frame his campaign as a struggle between patriots and traitors ready to sell out Russia to American subjugation. But the young people who took to the streets aren’t foreign stooges; they’re the latest generation of Westernizers in Russia’s 400-year-old conflict between modernizers and traditionalists that began with Peter the Great. In the past, Russian leaders could lock down the country in self-isolation. Now, even Putin acknowledges a need for open borders.

Putin at first was seen as a reformer when President Boris Yeltsin handed power to him 12 years ago. But he soon revealed himself as a statist, determined to defend and amplify state power at any cost. As a KGB agent based in East Germany when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Putin watched as people power swept away the once mighty Soviet empire. That experience goes a long way in explaining his aversion to street protests and his messianic belief that only he can save Russia.


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