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Vladimir Putin: Looking for support from a new constituency

"Previous books have told of the rise of the Putin system: this one aims to start telling the story of its decay." Thus Ben Judah begins his compelling account of the Putin years. 

As Judah says, Vladimir Putin emerged at the end of Boris Yeltsin's chaotic presidency as exactly the man Russia thought it needed. He was the "Russian Pinochet", loyal, effective and tough. The Russia he inherited faced accelerating political disability, armed insurrection and economic collapse. In short order his new regime took firm control, brought the oligarchs to heel and crushed the Chechen revolt. Putin was lucky; a turnaround in the oil price transformed Russia from a bankrupt into a BRIC. His methods were not gentle, but the Russian people saw the emasculation of the rule of law, press freedom and any genuinely effective opposition as a small price to pay for order and prosperity. Even allowing for ballot rigging, he won re-election in 2004 by a landslide.

Then the bill came in. Putin's "vertical of power", unconstrained by any channels for public criticism or redress, increasingly turned running Russia into a racket. Corruption rose to the levels of Nigeria and Kazakhstan. Perhaps a third of state revenues was stolen. Meanwhile the quality of government deteriorated. Forest fires burned unchecked, terrorists bribed their way through checkpoints, the health and education systems withered, and some two-thirds of Kremlin directives were simply not implemented. The graft and failing government that Putin had been brought in to remedy were again rampant. And top among the extortionists and bribetakers were the police and security organs themselves. In one of Judah's many telling quotes, a Russian friend cries out: "You just don't get it at all — what it really feels like to come from a country where everything can be stolen from you by a policeman with a smile on his face with one knock on the door."

Dmitri Medvedev was made president in 2008 because Putin could not serve another consecutive term. He was, in Judah's words, "powerful enough to define Russia's problems but not to solve them". Putin remained the real ruler, and Medvedev's ineffective stabs at liberal reform just underlined how entrenched the system had become. Putin's announcement that he would be returning to the presidency in 2012, rubbing ordinary Russians' faces in the irrelevance of their views on the matter, finally provoked a storm. Huge demonstrations in Moscow and other cities demanded change: less corruption, more democracy, less Putin. It felt like the Arab spring.

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