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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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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.

Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters

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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.

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.

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