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Putin’s Russia, 2024

by at 29/09/2011 23:20

It’s the year 2024. President Vladi- mir Putin is now 72. His sandy hair has thinned. But those icy cold blue eyes still transfix.

This nightmarish vision had many Russian democrats tossing and turning in bed Saturday night. With the daylight, they woke up. Then, they remembered: It was not a bad dream, their nightmare was true.

As if to rub it in, Novaya Gazeta published a front page cartoon, showing today’s Russian cabinet, aged 12 years, looking like a Soviet politburo of old.

Indeed it is back to the future, as today’s Kremlinologists study on- line biographies of Leonid Brezhnev and Josef Stalin to figure out how long they ruled Russia until they died in their beds. (Answer: 18 years for Brezhnev and 30 for Stalin). But last week’s elite electorate was not the voting membership of the Soviet Politburo.

Instead, Putin chose himself.

Then in a closed door meeting, he broke the news to his protégé, Dmitry Medvedev. Under the deal, he promised to make Medvedev his prime minister next May.

Thus in a backroom deal, the leadership was decided for the next decade.

Short term, it all should work because public opinion polls show Putin as the country’s most popular politician. Control of television, controls on political opposition, and controls on vote counting all help embellish his natural charisma.

The Putin-Medvedev job swap plan was unveiled at the weekend’s United Russia congress, which immediately rubber stamped it.

Putin is an expert at keeping his counsel. Close associates were clearly caught off guard.

On a visit to Washington, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin was evidently so miffed about being passed over for the prime minister’s job that he announced he would not work for the new government. In an unexpected display of force, Medvedev told him Monday that he had until sundown to quit or stay on. By the end of the day, Kudrin was gone.

Russian markets continued their fall, hitting two-year lows. Factoring in the Kudrin exit, economists now    estimate    that    net    capital    f light this year will hit $70 billion.

Moscow’s political protesters are loud – but they are also few

© RIA Novosti. / Igor Polkovnikov

Moscow’s political protesters are loud – but they are also few

And a brain drain may follow the money drain: half the country’s university students and entrepreneurs said in a recent poll that they want to emigrate. It is no wonder that one of the Kremlin’s top issues with the European Union is visas. Cuba and Belarus show that authoritarian regimes are much easier to maintain if the malcontents just leave.

Defenders of Russia’s political system correctly say that Russia’s history gives little hope that democracy can take root here.

But they twist uncomfortably in their seats when reminded that the same could have been said of nations as diverse as Taiwan, Brazil, South Korea, Spain, Poland, Mexico, Serbia and Japan. All have moved beyond authoritarian systems to create multi-party democracies.

In that tapestry of societies, the common change agent was a middle class that grew to the point where it reached a critical mass.

Behind the growth of Russia’s middle class is the stability and oil and gas-fueled growth of the Putin decade.

Now, oil and gas account for two-thirds of Russian export earnings. Coal, iron, gold and other minerals and metals account for most of the rest.

But another world recession — or a pause in China’s headlong growth — would push down com- modity prices, plunging Russia’s economy into crisis.

Before he quit as finance minister, Kudrin was the Kremlin’s Cassandra.

Two years from now, he warned recently, export prices for Russia’s oil will slip to $60 a barrel — well below the $120 level needed to balance Russia’s swollen budget.

Last weekend in Washington, Kudrin worried about Russia’s deep addiction to commodity exports: “Will we, in the next 5-10 years, tear ourselves away from this dependence, get off this needle, or won’t we?”

Marginalized from the political arena, most Russians retreat into their personal spheres, channeling energies into places where they can make a difference and get a real benefit — family, friends, work and travel. In this depoliticized atmosphere, a protest was held Sunday on Pushkin Square; it drew about 250 people.

The next morning, the most widely read story on RIA Novosti’s web site was not about politics. It was about a federal plan to allow the industrial cultivation of hemp, also known as cannabis sativa, or marijuana.

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