Putin inauguration: World view of a Russian feeling dissed
As the second presidential inauguration of Vladimir Putin approaches, a former correspondent who once worked for him looks at the world view of the Russian iron man. His theory: The president is feeling dissed by the West and believes it conspires to "destroy" Russia.
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If Putin really believes the protests against him are all orchestrated by the West, it could be his fatal mistake. When he and President Dmitry Medvedev announced last September that they intended to swap roles – with Putin standing for election and appointing Mr. Medvedev as his prime minister if he won – they explained that their reasoning was that Putin's poll ratings were higher than Medvedev's. What they both failed to understand was that their arrogance in simply arranging to "castle" (the chess term the Russians use for the move) was the very thing that would trigger the collapse in Putin's ratings.Skip to next paragraph
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First the previously invincible Putin found himself booed at a martial arts event. Then in December, after parliamentary elections were blatantly rigged to achieve victory for his United Russia party, thousands poured into the streets to protest – for the first time since Putin came to power.
Later that month he showed himself to be out of touch with what was going on. In a televised question-and-answer session, he mocked the protesters' white ribbons as looking like condoms, and claimed the demonstrators had been paid by Western agents. He described them as "Bandar-log" – the name of the "monkey-folk" in Kipling's "The Jungle Book."
It is worth analyzing this comment, because it was no unrehearsed line. The Bandar-log are not just monkeys: Kipling describes them as undisciplined, leaderless, chattering, full of fine ideas but unable to carry anything through to a conclusion – exactly how Putin describes the opposition. He remarked, "I have loved Kipling since I was a boy." (In fact, like most Russians, he probably knows his Kipling better from a series of Soviet animated cartoons made in the late 1960s.)
In his television appearance, Putin referred to a Bandar-log scene in the book that is quite frightening. The monkeys are rioting, and only the giant python, Kaa, is able to calm them – by mesmerizing them and calling on them to step closer ... so he can consume them for his supper. Putin paraphrased Kaa's words, with a wry smile on his lips: "Come to me, Bandar-log!"
It would seem that Putin really believes he has the rioting "monkeys" fully under his control. If so, it could be a fatal error. Moscow's "chattering classes" are convinced that Russia's political scene has changed dramatically. Already, an anti-Putin candidate has been elected mayor in a provincial city. The opposition may be disoriented, having found its voice only a few months ago after years of enforced silence. But it is not about to bow its head before Kaa.
Now, speculation is rife about where Putin will go from here. Will he make compromises with the resurgent opposition, to remove its sting, or will his undemocratic instincts hold sway? For the West, one thing is clear: It will probably have to deal with the prickly Putin for another six years, and it must decide how to make the best of that. In my view it would be pointless to lose those years in cold-war-style confrontation. Putin's foreign policy has always been reactive. He responds to positive gestures with goodwill, and to pressure by pulling down the shutters or even lashing out.
So perhaps it is time to tempt him with another Gates-style gesture on missile defense – but this time, meaning it. If, as we have seen, he is suspicious of the West's intentions, then maybe it is time to reassure him. Maybe, just maybe, Putin will respond – he might become more cooperative in dealing with Syria and Iran, and if he feels more secure he might even be persuaded to loosen up at home. The alternative would be six years of cold-war standoff, which would benefit neither the West nor the democrats inside Russia who are hoping for change.
• Angus Roxburgh, a former longtime Moscow correspondent who once worked for Putin, is the author of "The Strongman, Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia."