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Vladimir Putin 2.0: A harder, eastward-looking presidency

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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.

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