Does Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin mean more of the same Putin we know? Yes and no.
“Yes” because his instincts will no doubt push him towards trying to preserve the status quo, or rather to try to rule as he ruled during his first two terms – giving regular cash handouts to small-time civil servants, retirees, the military and the police; trying to ignore the opposition as unworthy of his attention; using great power rhetoric and anti-Americanism to consolidate the Russians; keeping economic reforms to a bare minimum; keeping state companies like Gazprom and Rosneft opaque and inaccessible to public scrutiny.
“No” because Russia has irrevocably changed over the last four years and this change will keep showing in different aspects of Russian life. Putin could ignore this trend but he will do it at his own peril.
In the wake of the Duma elections in December, he failed to grasp the fact that he and the system he created are undergoing a legitimacy crisis. The only answer to face this crisis is to look for new sources of legitimacy and a new image. But Russia’s “old new” president perceived (and seemingly continues to perceive) such behavior as a sign of weakness. Putin never bends under pressure – but this denies him flexibility, which is absolutely necessary for a politician in search of legitimacy. Having decided to ram through his election in the first round, Putin inadvertently destroyed one important aspect of his public image: he ceased to pretend that he represents the interests of all Russians (something he did very successfully in 2000-2008).
Putin’s attitude – his evident disdain for the people who came out in support of the protest movement, his unwillingness to take their concerns seriously, his apparent conviction that those who oppose him and his policies are either idle big city bohemians with nothing else to do but criticize or hirelings of Western NGOs – will come back to haunt him later and probably very soon.
As opposed to his two previous presidencies, Putin does not have a vision for the future of Russia. One could have disagreed with his policies in the early 2000s, but for the majority of Russians, right or wrong, he represented hope. Not any more. Vladimir Vladimirovich promises “stability” which more and more people do not find that important.
Russians haven’t turned themselves into ardent revolutionaries in these last few months. But they learned to see stability as something inherent to their lives as opposed to the 1990s, when there was precious little stability (but, as some would say, many more opportunities) in Russia.
Russian society today is more prosperous, more bourgeois, and, paradoxically, less appreciative of Putin’s claim to be the “stabilizer-in-chief.” More and more Russians feel they are doing quite well keeping this stability themselves. Also their memories of Boris Yeltsin’s 1990s, which Putin always juxtaposed to his own rule and the accompanying fear of chaos fade with time.
This lack of forward-looking vision from the “new president” will become more and more glaring with time. Winter and spring hopes of Putin’s supporters in the ruling class that he will “reinvent” his image proved to be misplaced. This will make more and more members of this class apprehensive and fearful for their own future.
The apparent drop in protest activities should not deceive anyone. Russians do not want to spend their time at rallies that bring no practical results. But they will be much more active in local elections and will increasingly support candidates that offer this new vision for their regions, cities and towns that Putin and his supporters so sourly lack. By the time elections of the Moscow mayor are due in 2015, we may well see a visibly different political landscape in the country.
Vladimir Putin is back in the Kremlin. But his era in Russian politics is drawing to a close. In a certain metaphorical sense it is over already.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.