By Fareed Zakaria, CNN
If you're trying to understand the recent protests against the Putin regime in Russia, one of the best guides is an outspoken columnist who's been writing trenchant essays in the nation's leading newspapers over the past month.
"Political competition is the heartbeat of democracy," this author writes, noting the absence of such competition in contemporary Russia. He describes the frustrations of the Russian middle class, demanding political rights. "Today, the quality of our state does not match civil society's readiness to participate in it." On corruption, perhaps the issue that most riles the public, the author is scathing. "The problem comes from the lack of transparency and accountability of government," he says.
Now, what makes this all deeply strange is that the author of these essays is Vladimir Putin - the architect, builder, and chief enforcer of the system that he is critiquing. Putin seems to understand Russia's problems better than your average dictator. He doesn't seem to understand that he is the source of those problems in many people's eyes. In Putin's worldview, he is the savior of modern Russia, the man who stopped its descent into chaos and poverty in the 1990s. His opponents see him as a warmed-over KGB apparatchik, presiding over a new, improved Soviet state.
Neither view is entirely accurate. The real hero of Russia's rescue was oil. The dramatic rise in the average Russian's income has been a consequence not of Putin's policies but of oil prices. The price of oil when Putin came to office was $27 a barrel. From that point, it began an almost unbroken rise and is now at $116 a barrel. And oil is the lifeblood of Russia's economy. It provides two-thirds of its exports, half of the federal government's revenues.
The Russian state has used these revenues to dole out patronage across the country. It is widely believed in the West that Putin stays in power through repression. Actually, he does so in larger measure through bribery.
In the short run, Putin will be able to win the March election and consolidate power through a mixture of repression and patronage. His problems are more long-term. His government has ramped up its revenues to the point that it now needs oil to approach $125 a barrel simply to balance the budget.
Russia's demographics are terrible. It has a population that's aging and shrinking, which means pension and healthcare costs will rise as people retire; labor productivity in Russia is abysmal; the Caucasus region is almost turning into a separate country; and Russia's ethnic diversity is straining its sense of nationalism. But, like Saudi Arabia, like Iran, like Venezuela - all somewhat dysfunctional regimes - the Russian regime will survive these challenges until and unless oil prices come down.