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Vladimir Putin 2.0: A harder, eastward-looking presidency

Vladimir Putin, once again in the Kremlin's top post, faces a far more divided Russia than he did during his first stint, and he's taking a more authoritarian line to match.

By , Correspondent

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    A vendor opens a traditional Russian nesting doll with the faces of Vladimir Putin (underneath) and Dmitry Medvedev at a souvenir market in St. Petersburg, Russia.
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It's been just over a year since Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev took the stage at a conference of the ruling United Russia party and announced that they had decided "years ago" to trade places after Mr. Medvedev's first presidential term and send Mr. Putin back to the Kremlin for six more years as Russia's supreme ruler.

The 10,000 party delegates leapt to their feet and gave this stunning piece of news a thundering ovation. At that moment, Putin appeared at the height of his powers. After eight highly successful years in the Kremlin in the past decade, he had easily engineered his own replacement by Medvedev in 2008, in order to evade a constitutional ban on more than two consecutive presidential terms, and seems to have believed there would be no difficulty about performing another such switch.

But around the country reactions were more muted, and few seemed to be celebrating. Supporters of Medvedev's modest liberal rhetoric expressed open disappointment. Russia's new social media, such as Facebook, LiveJournal, and the Russian-language VKontakte, erupted in confusion, derision, even outrage.

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In retrospect, that moment may have been a critical watershed in Russia, where the country's traditionalists and new creative class began to part ways. Russia under Putin's second coming has since taken a sharp turn rightward, driving the creation of a permanent opposition that's trapped outside the system and drifting in dangerously radical directions.

"It was a very painful signal to the public that said politics is just a game played by a couple guys at the top, the impression of choice is only an illusion, and they've decided that we're going to have Putin forever," says Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister who is now a leader of the anti-Kremlin liberal opposition.

"Even some very loyal people were appalled by the cynicism of this maneuver. There is no doubt that it changed public perceptions, by creating this hopeless picture of Putin in power forever, and it was a trigger for the protest movement that was to come," he says.

Putin leadership no longer unchallenged

A year on, Putin – who turned 60 on Oct. 7 – has achieved his goal of returning to supreme power, but it is hardly the triumphant Kremlin lap he may have been expecting.

His domain is racked with unexpected political turmoil, and his leadership, though still strong, no longer looks unchallenged. Enormous street protests that broke out last December, propelled by evidence of massive electoral fraud on behalf of United Russia in Duma polls, have continued, and may now be mutating into a permanent and intransigent opposition movement.

The new Duma, established by that deeply flawed and disputed election, has passed a wave of draconian new legislation that appears as much aimed at exacting revenge against the protesters as it is at sharply raising the future penalties for any kind of dissent.

Four years of the Medvedev-Putin "tandem" may have changed Russia in important ways that are only now coming into focus, in part by creating an impression of pluralism at the top. As president, Medvedev had cultivated a more liberal and pro-Western vision of Russia's future, which resonated with many in the country's educated elite and seemed to speak directly to the aspirations of the emerging urban middle class. Putin, the rough-tongued old KGB hand with a very real track record of bringing Russia back from the brink of economic and social collapse in the 1990s, enjoyed stratospheric approval ratings across the country's vast conservative and working-class hinterland.

During the Medvedev years, few complained that the appointed prime minister, Putin, clearly continued to have a strong say – many even believed he maintained full control – over the affairs of state. But when the tandem ended, and its two principals admitted it had been largely a charade, society was set for a split.

"If in 2008 the population was ready to accept anything from the authorities, this was no longer true in 2011," says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center, an independent Moscow-based public opinion agency. "Society has grown, become more sophisticated," he says. "There is a significant middle class that no longer feels economic desperation as its No. 1 priority, but wants to have a voice, feel [like] a respected part of the country. This is a very deep shift, which the authorities failed to notice."

It was largely this educated, prosperous urban middle class that took to the streets last December to protest against electoral fraud and express a full range of grievances they had been harboring against the autocratic political system – which Putin's self-willed return to power symbolized so dramatically – the rampant official corruption, lack of equality before the law, and infuriating privileges enjoyed by the arrogant, almost aristocratic Russian bureaucratic caste.

"The years of the 'tandem' saw some of the most rapid social change in Russian history. There emerged a generation of young Russians who had come of age during the Medvedev years, who took easily to all the very new electronic devices and social networks, and who were not afraid to speak out," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal.

Mr. Grazhdankin says that if the authorities had initially chosen dialogue with street protesters, and perhaps addressed some of the most egregious evidence of electoral fraud that had been collected, pressure might have abated.

A hard tack to the right

But Putin, claiming the protests were inspired and perhaps even directed from abroad, ran for president by inciting resentment of the prosperous Moscow creative class and by whipping up suspicion of the West among his far-flung conservative base. He also cultivated a much closer relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church, the czarist state's traditional ideological watchdog. At the height of the election campaign, Patriarch Kirill embraced Putin and publicly described the former KGB agent as "a miracle from God."

Since Putin's inauguration last May, the impression of a church-state compact has grown with the lengthy trial and harsh two-year prison sentence meted out to three young women from the band Pussy Riot, accused of hurting the religious feelings of believers by performing a "punk prayer" in a nearly empty church. Last month the Duma introduced a new bill that will effectively criminalize blasphemy for the first time since the 19th century.

"The ideological outlines of the new Putin era are becoming clear. I don't think it's Putin's intention to split society, but he's openly trying to please his base ... the most traditional and conservative elements of society," says Andrei Kolesnikov, opinion editor of the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta. "Putin feels the rejection of the creative class, and because of his character, and perhaps his KGB background, he finds it impossible to reach out to them, to compromise. But the growing influence of the church, and the increasingly conservative tone of governance, makes the alienation of the middle classes a permanent problem," he adds.

Looking eastward

The new Putin era may also witness a decisive foreign-policy shift away from integration with the European Union and "reset" with the United States and toward closer political and economic cooperation with China and other Asian countries. Some part of that is clearly logical and inevitable; Russia, with two-thirds of its territory in Asia, is probably wise to pivot away from crisis-ridden Europe and embrace the dynamic economies of the Far East.

But another part may be driven by domestic politics and Putin's abiding suspicions that the West, particularly the US, may lie behind the anti-Kremlin protests. Early in his new term, Putin canceled a visit to the US without explanation, even though President Obama had moved the scheduled Group of Eight meeting to Camp David to accommodate Putin. Last month the Kremlin ordered the US Agency for International Development to close its office in Moscow because it was allegedly meddling in internal Russian politics.

"Putin seems to believe that these protest groups are supported by the West," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow foreign-policy journal. "Even if they are sincere, Putin thinks they are wrong. He thinks they don't understand how fragile everything is, that they will bring on a catastrophe.... You may say this is an age-old Russian conservative point of view, but it's definitely a factor here."

Even some Putin supporters are worried.

"Putin wasn't wrong to come back; he is this country's most popular politician," says Sergei Markov, vice rector of the Plekhanov Economic University and a Putin adviser. "But he is wrong in failing to move quickly to frame a new agenda. He needs to address the new educated middle class as well as the moral majority....

"The irony here is that Vladimir Putin is a hostage to his own success. His policies created a vastly more stable and sophisticated society, and now he has to overcome his inertia and find a way to refresh himself. If he does, he can repeat his past successes. If he fails, I fear he will face a growing wave of problems."

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