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Walter Rodgers

After Russia's elections, public anger at Putin: Can he fix corruption?

A protest vote against Putin's United Russia party in parliament is being followed by sustained protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Putin is still headed for the presidency, but if he doesn't fix corruption, Russia risks the stagnation of the Brezhnev years.

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Despite the fact that Putin and his Kremlin lieutenants have a chokehold on TV’s political news reporting, what is available to Russian viewers today is nothing short of remarkable compared with the staged and stale programming under the Communists. There are now documentaries on the shameful state of Russia’s roads – especially the Trans-Siberian Highway, where mudholes swallow whole cars and trucks.

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Much has been said in the West of the so-called Putin dictatorship. But for all his maneuvering, he has not stifled internal criticism of Russian government failures on many levels.

TV comedians ridicule police bribe-taking with wicked jokes. One features a policeman who stops a driver, who in turn rolls down his window and says to the officer, “But I didn’t do anything.” The Russian cop retorts, “Yeah, but my wife and child can’t wait for you to break the rules.”

Russians are not infrequently heard to say, “It’s a shame we live this way. We know it’s bad for the country and society.” That’s yet another reason the voters spoke so eloquently in the last election. Russians have essentially said, “a pox on all of you.” Of course, the parliamentary elections were largely rigged. Everyone expected that. But the public still sternly rebuked Russia’s politicians.

And yet, it seems astounding how far Russia has come in the 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. We should not lose sight of the fact that disposable income for Russians doubled during Putin’s eight-year term as president. Unlike in the United States, no one in Russia talks about economic collapse, except perhaps in provincial villages where people remain as destitute as they were under Communist rule. There is now an economic system in place that is stable as long as Russia’s minerals , oil, and natural gas hold out.

In one very important sense, Russians and Americans now have this in common: Both peoples seem willing to sacrifice some liberties in order to gain economic security and safety. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge Putin faces is that he must now govern a Russia that has changed from the one he inherited from Boris Yeltsin, who left behind political and economic turmoil. He captains a ship that threatens to slide back into a stagnant sea of Brezhnevism. That’s his greatest threat: becoming like the venal Leonid Brezhnev of the 1970s, losing all that Russia gained in 20 years. 

He now knows the Russian public is angry; not angry enough to stage a revolution, but sufficiently disgruntled to embarrass the Kremlin. Unless the public’s concerns are addressed, the public goodwill required to govern any modern state will elude Putin. Good governance, like perfect Communism, will remain somewhere beyond the horizon.  

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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