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Opinion

Russia protests are overblown by West. Putin is here to stay.

Mesmerized by Moscow protests, Western observers predict President-elect Vladimir Putin’s demise. But the politically active middle class is small and limited. US policy must be based on a realistic analysis of Putin’s support, not unfounded assessments that he's on his last legs.

By F. Stephen Larrabee / April 17, 2012

Russia's Prime Minister and President-elect Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on housing development in the town of Istra outside Moscow April 16. Op-ed contributor F. Stephen Larrabee says that for most Russian voters 'Putin represents stability and a barricade against things getting worse.'

Yana Lapikova/RIA Novosti/Reuters

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Washington

A fairy tale is enchanting the West – the end of the Putin era. Scarcely a day goes by without some Western observer or pundit announcing the demise of Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin. The mass protests in Moscow and other large cities since the parliamentary elections in early December are portrayed as signaling “the beginning of the end of Putin era.” Some observers predict that Putin will be unable to serve his full six-year term.

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However, these assessments are based more on wishful thinking – and groupthink – than on hard facts. The protests represent the emergence in Russia of a bold and politically active middle class that is fed up with the growing corruption and constraints on basic political rights under Mr. Putin and his successor, current President Dmitri Medvedev.

Yet one should not exaggerate the political influence of this middle class. While highly active and vocal, it is relatively small and limited to Moscow and a few other large Russian cities. Outside these cities, support for Putin is much stronger and more widespread. Voters in these areas are far from satisfied with conditions. But they fear political change could bring a return to the chaos and instability of the Yeltsin years. For them, Putin represents stability and a barricade against things getting worse.

This factor is overlooked by many Western pundits and analysts. Mesmerized by the protests in Moscow, many analysts predicted that Putin would not receive 50 percent of the votes in the first round and would be forced into a second round run-off. However, Putin won 64 percent of the vote in the first round – significantly less than the support he received in the presidential elections in his first two terms, but a respectable victory nonetheless.

This is not to suggest that Putin is a born-again democrat or that Washington should overlook the seedy aspects of his rule. But if US policy is to be successful, it must be based on a realistic analysis of Putin’s support and the political balance of forces in Russia. It cannot be based on unfounded assessments that Putin is on his last legs and likely be forced into early retirement, as some Western observers have suggested.

To be sure, Putin faces a very different Russia than one he ruled 12 years ago. During his first tenure as president, he benefited from high oil prices that provided an economic cushion and allowed Russia to recover economically much more quickly than many observers expected. The improvement in the economy was the main reason for Putin’s high approval ratings during his first two terms as president.

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