Russia’s Fading Tsar
On June 18, 2012, 1:37 PM by Dakota Smith
As Russian protests continue to mount, Vladimir Putin’s power wanes.
For the last seven months, Russia has been a nation on the edge. Thousands of protesters have poured into the streets of Moscow and Saint Petersburg in the country’s largest display of political agitation since the early 1990s. The spark was the legislative election of December 2011 where allegations of widespread voter fraud by Putin’s political party, United Russia, sent a diverse array of groups into the streets.
Putin is more than just the Russian president; he considers himself the personal embodiment of the Russian state and has therefore taken the protests very personally. He has mocked the protesters, comparing their white ribbons to condoms, and has derided them as “agents of the West” who seek to destroy Russia. And via Twitter, state media has even accused U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul of being the hidden force behind the protest movements.
The cracks in Putin’s aura of invincibility first started to appear in 2008 when Putin was serving as Prime Minister. Only a few months removed from his second term as President of the Russian Federation, Putin was a man as big as Russia itself. He had single-handedly saved the country from the chaos of the 1990s and was everything that his predecessor Boris Yeltsin had not been. Most of Russia was grateful.
But the global financial crisis of 2008 caught every nation by surprise and Russia was no exception. The economic miracle of Vladimir Putin’s presidency evaporated like a mirage. The decade-long growth, as it turned out, had been driven almost entirely by record-setting commodity prices. Structural deficits, corruption and inequality had been masked by $100 per barrel oil prices. Suddenly with a sharp decline in global commodities demand, Putin’s legacy was in jeopardy.
Over the next four years the Russian nation collectively fell out of love with Putin. Polls showed that he was still the country’s most popular politician, but it was certainly no love affair. New president Dmitry Medvedev proved to be a capable replacement. Quiet and academic, he was the exact opposite of Putin.
That’s not to say that Medvedev was wildly beloved by the Russian populace, either. A popular joke in Russia was to feign ignorance of Medvedev when asked by a foreigner to give an opinion on the power-sharing situation. But on the heels of news reports suggesting a growing animosity between Medvedev and Putin, it came as a shock to many Russians when in September 2011 Medvedev announced that he would not seek a second term as President, therefore opening the door for Putin’s return.
Denied the opportunity to choose between the two men as their next president, the conditions were ripe for public discontent. The controversy surrounding the December legislative elections drove home the point that the government no longer felt it necessary to even pretend that democracy existed in Russia.
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