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Putin deserves much of the blame for that depressing reality. Political corruption has been a hallmark of the Putin era. A 2005 report by the Moscow-based think tank INDEM found that corruption surged between 2001 and 2005, while Putin was still president, growing to over $300 billion, a figure equal to a quarter of Russia’s economy. President Medvedev, who early on pledged to tackle corruption, has essentially conceded failure in that project. Earlier this year he revealed that that in 2010 alone some $35 billion in Russian government funds were stolen in state contracts. Putin has presided over much of that theft. Among other corrupt arrangements, he has appointed personal friends to run a bank called Rossiya, which then won generous state contracts from Russia’s nationalized oil company Gazprom. With Russia’s past and likely future president at the center of this official corruption, it is no surprise that Russians have little confidence in their public officials and institutions.
Until now, Putin has escaped the blame for this state of affairs. That was largely due to his self-professed role in providing the country with “stability” after the turmoil of the 1990s. For Russians scarred by memories of that decade, Putin’s slogan had a powerful resonance. But it is increasingly less compelling. One reason that Russia has enjoyed relative economic stability in recent years is its so-called Stability Fund, a reserve made up of cash stored during the height of the oil boom. The fund has allowed Russia to weather the economic instability that has shaken the debt-ridden nations of Europe and the United States. It may not last, however. The Russian government is expected to dramatically boost public spending in the coming months as Putin attempts’ to purchase public goodwill ahead of the presidential election in March. Higher spending would in turn make Russia even more dependent on oil prices to make up its budget, and thus even more vulnerable to a slump in oil prices. If the oil price should fall to $60 a barrel, as some analysts predict, Russia’s fossil fuel dependent economy will be hit just as hard as Europe and the US.
In the past, Putin has relied on public relations stunts to distract attention from such systemic concerns. He has been photographed tracking polar bears, driving a Formula One racecar, and roughing it shirtless in Siberia. But as the country’s problems mount, these displays of hyper-masculinity have failed to capture the public imagination. Last month, for instance, Putin was roundly booed while making an appearance at a martial arts contest. Just prior to that, a Putin spokesman was forced into the embarrassing admission that a diving expedition in which Putin was captured retrieving some Greek amphorae from the ocean floor was in fact staged. Few Russians were impressed.
Nor should they be. While justifying his power grabs as preventing Russia’s return to the political chaos the post-Soviet era, Putin has dragged the country further and further into the Soviet past. Press and individual freedoms have been curtailed, government and police power has expanded, and Russia is ever more increasingly alienated from the outside world. For a time, economic growth immunized Putin from paying the political price for this regression. But with dark times on the horizon, this weekend’s election may be a sign that Russians have begun to resent Putin’s strong hand.
The point was poignantly driven home by protestors who took to the streets of Moscow on Monday in the largest opposition demonstration in Russia years. They condemned this weekend’s vote and chanted, “Russia without Putin!” As the prospect of 12 more years of Putin’s rule looms, Russians may find the notion ever more appealing.
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