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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.

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"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.

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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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