Putin Back with a Vengeance

The Russian autocrat begins his third term with a new crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.

There was something grimly fitting about Vladimir Putin’s swearing-in ceremony this Monday for a new six-year term. While Russia’s president-elect paid tribute to “democracy” and civil society, baton-wielding riot police pummeled protestors and rounded up opposition activists on Moscow’s streets.

The rift between rhetoric and reality aptly sums up the legacy of Putin’s rule, which has seen a rapid erosion of democratic government and the rule of law in Russia. Putin’s third term promises more of the same. Even before Putin’s inauguration ceremony began on Monday, Russian police beat up and arrested over 400 people taking part in anti-government demonstrations. Some of the younger demonstrators were reportedly handed military draft notices upon their arrest.

Police continued the crackdown on Monday, arresting hundreds and clearing the main thoroughfares completely so that Putin’s motorcade could proceed. One Russian blogger posted images of totally deserted streets, with the sarcastic caption: "Joyous crowds of Muscovites greet the new cleanly elected president!" Dissent is alive and well in Russia, as the 20,000-strong weekend demonstrations suggest, but Putin’s idea of democracy means that those who disagree with the government are neither heard nor seen.

Emptied streets cannot hide the fact that Putin’s new term has not been welcomed, particularly in major urban hubs like Moscow. The prospect of Putin resuming the office that he never really surrendered has proved a galvanizing force in Russia over the past year, awaking a previously dormant middle class, and sparking the largest street protests in Russia since the dying days of the Soviet Union. Not powerful enough to prevent Putin’s reelection – largely a formality in Russia’s fraud-plagued elections – the protests have revealed what the state-run media has long managed to suppress: widespread distrust of the political system and popular contempt for Putin.

Putin’s landslide “victory” in March took some steam out of the protest movement but it is unlikely to disappear altogether. The reason has to do with the emergence of a new force in Russian politics, a politically engaged, young, urban middle class that is not content to stand by passively while Putin destroys the country's governing institutions. Mobilized by online social media like Twitter and blogs, this new generation of activists has been extraordinarily successful in exposing government corruption, most notably the massive vote rigging in what passes for Russian elections. While it remains to be seen whether they can sustain the record number of protestors that poured into the streets of Russian capitals this winter, they are clearly intent on challenging the government going forward.

Putin’s answer to the protestors, aside from police harassment and periodic crackdowns, has been to claim that they are not representative of broader society, which remains supportive of him. There is some truth to that, but the support that Putin does enjoy is precarious and conditional. In the past, Putin has relied on steady economic growth and lavish social spending to keep his base of provincial and working-class voters happy. The problem is that it was a social compact bought with oil revenue, which has declined in recent years. When Putin first took power in 2000, high oil prices allowed the government to bankroll its spending programs and balance the budget. Spending has increased since then and Russian analysts say that oil will have to stay above $117 per barrel if Russia is to avoid a budget deficit. With oil currently trading at $120 per barrel, the government is living dangerously.

If oil revenue doesn’t materialize, Putin could be in trouble. Underpinning his latest campaign was a promise to boost government spending for a wide array of constituencies, from teachers to soldiers. Such a spending spree is estimated to run the government $160 billion over the next six years, and there is growing alarm that Putin will not be able to cover the bill if the oil spigot slows. The prominent Russian economist Sergei Guriev recently speculated that the government may simply "run out of cash." Should Putin renege on his spending promises, he could face a backlash that goes beyond the restive urban middle class.

That prospect should be Putin’s biggest fear. For now, he can still rig elections with impunity and set state police on the protestors who denounce his destruction of Russian democracy. The great unknown of his third term is what Putin will be prepared to do when he can no longer afford to bribe Russians for their support.

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