OpinionMeister

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Russia: Another Ukraine?

The Wall Street Journal is covering discontent in Russia Link (requires subscription). Their analysis is that Putin's assumption of authoritarian power leaves him nobody else to point to for blame.

The protests spreading across Russia in the past week are a response to an unpopular welfare overhaul. But in retrospect the seeds were planted by the Russian president's moves to centralize authority in the Kremlin. Absolute power, as Vladimir Putin ought to realize by now, brings absolute responsibility.(...)

But the 40 million or so people affected by the reforms, out of a 144 million population, probably won't be willing to give Mr. Putin the benefit of the doubt. The heavy-handed approach on this reform stirred deeper popular anger at the government. For the Kremlin, the nightmare scenario would be that the protests mushroom into something bigger and that Russians, as so often in their past, will be unified by their anger at the powerful man in the Kremlin.

Before this week, Mr. Putin's popularity ratings were already falling: Only 39% of Russians polled by the Levada Center last month "trusted" the president, compared with 58% the year before. A ROMIR Monitoring survey, also conducted last month, found 38% of Russians happy with the direction of their country, as opposed to 53% in Dec. 2003.

Many things help account for the drop in support and the rise in discontent in spite of flush economic times. But the most basic explanation is that by taking hold of all the reins of power, Mr. Putin says in effect, "Russia, c'est moi." As a result, everything that goes wrong becomes Mr. Putin's fault.

Lacking any past experience in politics, the former KGB colonel probably didn't anticipate that his authoritarianism would so quickly undermine his popular support. It could turn out to be his gravest miscalculation. The new, puffed-up Russian president looks both omnipotent -- always a mirage -- and cruelly aloof. The future promises more strife. High oil prices temporarily disguise the fact that Russia remains a poor country that badly needs reforms. Mr. Putin hasn't made the best choices of where to start.

Russia (then the Soviet Union) was through this before. Once you acquire authoritarian power, it is very difficult to ease off without encouraging more rebellion. Just ask Gorbachev. Putin has to make a choice. He cannot stay where he is. Either he has to move toward more absolute dictatorship, or he has to move toward reform and greater democracy. The second choice is harder to accomplish, but it is the only one that is stable over the long run.

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