Time is catching up with Putin
December 5th, 2012
02:17 PM ET

Time is catching up with Putin

By Lucian Kim, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Lucian Kim is a journalist who has chronicled the Moscow protest movement on his blog at luciankim.com. The views expressed are his own.

One year ago this month, the impossible happened. Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets of Moscow in the largest anti-government demonstrations since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Conventional wisdom held that Russians, enjoying the windfall from a decade-long oil boom, prized economic well-being over political enfranchisement. But when last December’s parliamentary elections were marred by reports of widespread fraud, Muscovites had enough. The target of their rage was Vladimir Putin, who showed no intention of stepping aside after 12 years in power.

One year later, Putin appears to have prevailed. He returned to the Kremlin after officially taking 64 percent of the vote in the March presidential election. His rubber-stamp parliament pushed through a raft of laws to stifle dissent, and dozens of opposition activists – including the performance art group Pussy Riot – are bearing the brunt of a judicial onslaught. Russians’ readiness to protest has seemed to fizzle as last winter’s coalition of liberals, leftists and nationalists shows signs of fraying.

More from GPS: Why Pussy Riot matters

Yet to call it a victory would be premature. Putin’s biggest enemy isn’t even the opposition, but the simple passage of time.

A year ago, protesters first raised the possibility of Putin’s political mortality as they rallied on streets and squares.

During his first two terms as president and an interim period as prime minister, Putin enjoyed genuine popularity thanks to the petrodollars flooding into the country. A streamlined hierarchy that precluded a viable opposition reinforced his seemingly invincible political machine.

The tipping point came when Moscow’s middle class abandoned Putin in their frustration with political stagnation and official corruption. In March, he failed to win even half the vote in the capital.

While a passive majority in the rest of the country still supports the status quo, it hardly constitutes an active political base that would ever come to Putin’s rescue.

Putin’s physical mortality is also no longer a taboo. Since his 60th birthday in early October, the jet-setting president has kept an unusually low profile, limiting public appearances and keeping to his residence outside Moscow. Official denials of a serious back injury have only fueled speculation about his true condition – and evoked comparisons to ailing Kremlin leaders such as Boris Yeltsin or Leonid Brezhnev. On Monday, Putin traveled to Turkey on his first foreign trip in almost two months.

The uncharacteristic absence of a leader who has promoted the image of an iron-pumping, micro-managing czar comes at a time when his inner circle is already in disarray. An undeclared war on corruption has cost the job of a defense minister and led to a media campaign on state TV against a number of other officials, including a former agriculture minister.

More from CNN: Vote may mark beginning of end for Putin

Skeptics see the scandals as the result of infighting among rival clans that only create the impression of a fight against graft. Yet the uncertainty of who may go next belies the stability that Putin made the hallmark of his rule.

As for the opposition – as immature and vain as they have proven to be – they can afford to wait.

The so-called Coordination Council that activists elected in October has been derided as unrepresentative and unimportant. Of course, the council can only claim to represent those who chose to participate, namely the most active and committed members of Russia’s politicized middle class. But at least the forum provides a much-needed structure to a disparate movement.

Time isn’t on Putin’s side.

Having concentrated so much power in his own hands, he will ultimately be held responsible for anything that goes wrong. By deciding that only he was fit to lead Russia, Putin has merely postponed the question of a peaceful succession.

Ready or not, a new generation of Russians is waiting in the wings.

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Topics: Russia

soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Quigley

    I personally admire Vladimir Putin as a great improvement over that wimp Boris Yeltsin who plunged Russia into a severe depression and crawled to the West for help! Why would the Russians, after all these years of prosperity, want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg? I thank that this is just more right-wing propaganda coming out of the West!

    December 5, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Reply
    • Shay

      You are clueless. High oil prices saved Russia, not Putin, he and his thieving cronies plundered Russia's oil wealth for themselves. What's to admire in a corrupt dictator who made his judo instructor into an oil billionaire? Go and live in Putin's paradise if you admire him so much.

      December 5, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Reply
      • Roma

        Did you just say that my standards of living, here in Siberia, haven't improved during Putin's presidency???
        Well, that's just a pathetic lie, man.

        December 5, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
  2. j. von hettlingen

    By law, Putin could stand for a fourth term in 2018, though he said he had not decided whether or not he wanted to. It all depends on his health. Enjoying the image of an workholic and an ironman, he would no doubt try to live up to it. Even if he's weak physically, he is surrounded by loyalists. Once back in the Kremlin in May, he set about easing liberals out of government, often replacing them with more hardline allies or neutrals seen as little more than yes-men.

    December 5, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Reply
  3. Tatiana

    It is up to the Russians to decide the future of their country and its leaders. We do not need the unsolicited advises from the West or from "experts" or bloggers like Lucian Kim. We already had plenty of such advises during the Yeltsin terms which led to Russia's economic and financial collapse. Please direct your energy at saving EU from disintegration, US from Financial Cliff and over 16 trillion debt. a big chunk of which belongs to the Red China.

    Russia and Putin haters should stay away from us but smart Amerricans, Europeans, which are not brainwashed by such articles are welcome because:

    1. Russia is the largest market in Europe, with 142 million people. Contrary to popular opinion, Russia will not be empty of people in 30 years. The demographic trends have improved in the past decade. If current trends continue in the next 10 years, then by 2022 the average Russian man will be living longer than the average white American male without a university education.

    2. Russia is pulling away from continental Europe in terms of growth in gross domestic product. Over the next five years, eurozone GDP growth is expected to be on average 1 percent, and the U.S. is expected to have 2.3 percent growth in GDP. Meanwhile, Russia's economy will expand about 4 percent, provided that oil stays above $95 per barrel. In terms of GDP slowdown in 2012, Russia has managed better than all the BRICs and Turkey, and per capita GDP is much higher than that of China and India.

    3. Russia ranks among the top three profit markets in the world. Russian consumers understand quality and will pay for it. The return on equity in Russia across some sectors in 2012 (chemical, metals, transportation) exceeds that in Europe by roughly 70 percent.

    4. Russia is Europe's second-largest automotive market, with 2.7 million euros in car sales in 2011, behind only Germany, with 3.1 million.

    5. Russia will be the largest consumer products market in Europe in 2024.

    6. It is the largest mobile phone market in Europe today, with a saturation of 230 million phones, compared with 100 million in Germany.

    7. Based on the threshold of $15,000 annual household income as the standard for defining the middle class in emerging countries, in Russia, 55 percent of households are middle class, whereas this figure is only 21 percent in China, 11 percent in India and 30 percent in Brazil. What's more, wealthy households are more predominant in Russia compared with other BRIC countries, with 15 percent having incomes of more than $50,000. In China, it is a mere 2 percent, while it is barely 1 percent in India and just 5 percent in Brazil.

    8. Russia ranks among the lowest in the world for household debt: 8 percent of GDP. The Western average is 90 percent. In addition, Russia's government debt is also low, at 7 percent.

    9. Russia holds the third-largest hard currency reserves in the world, at $510 billion.

    10. The unemployment rate, at 5.4 percent, is one of the lowest in Europe.

    11. Russian human resources are among the most educated and qualified in the world.

    12. Russia is one of the very few markets in the world where companies in the right sector can grow at 20 percent per year for years on end. Russia consistently ranks high in terms of sales growth in Europe. For example, Russia is the largest market for -Danone and the second largest for -PepsiCo.

    Lucian start looking for a real job, your hatred can be too dangerous to your health

    December 5, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Reply
    • Lyndsie Graham

      Well stated, Tatiana. It seems like we Americans are always sticking our noses into other peoples' business and are almost always wrong, too! I agree with everything you said here and these anti-Russian Tea Partiers like Lucien really disgust me to no end! Besides, these people never mention what a mess Boris Yeltsin left Russia in since he was too busy trying to please the West. Keep up the good work!

      December 6, 2012 at 8:30 am | Reply
    • Vladimir

      This is just copied from The Moscow Times op-ed. Could have at least acknowledged the source: http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/12-reasons-why-russia-is-a-great-investment/472501.html

      December 6, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Reply
      • Engin

        Tatiana and Vlad,
        Thanks for the detailed information.

        December 8, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  4. Hate Wins

    Tatiana
    Good post...Now we know socialism dose not work....YEA YEA YEA
    If it did then the good old USSR would be alive and well.

    December 6, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Reply
  5. Tatiana

    Vlad, I am sorry, I should have included the link to Moscow Times article re 12 points. Was too emotional perhaps and forgot to do it, my mistake. I am really pleased that there are many Americans who understand the real world. People like Lucian Kim follow the line of Mitt Romney and his advisers who are looking for more enemies instead of friends. Russia can be a good and reliable friend of America if US media stops promoting hate towards our country.

    December 7, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Reply
  6. joe anon 1

    cnn is propaganda.

    u.s. hates putin for not bending to his knees before the great, crooked u.s.

    putin wants to help the russian people. the u.s. wants to enslave all people to serve the 1%.

    russia will remain. the u.s. will implode.

    December 8, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Reply

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