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Putin's Back, But Not Forever

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Vladamir Putin's regime may prove less stable than he promises.

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Vladimir Putin announced his much-expected return to Russia's presidency this weekend just as the world financial elite gathered at the IMF/World Bank annual meeting in Washington, in a near-panic about the metastasizing eurozone debt crisis and signs of a new global slowdown. The timing was probably coincidental -- Putin's reascension was cued to a congress of his United Russia political party -- but it served the lord of the Kremlin well in several ways.

First, global opinion leaders had more serious business than banging out the usual columns condemning Russia's "retreat to authoritarianism." More substantively, Europe's (and America's) intractable crises pointed out how far Russia has come in 12 years under Putin's control and why, in his mind anyway, it still needs his firm hand on the tiller going forward.

When Putin first took office as president on January 1, 2000, Russia was limping out of its own 1998 debt default, paying its bills at the sufferance of mostly West European creditors. Its economy had shrunk for 15 years straight. Now Russia and its fellow BRICs are the global rich men, at least in terms of available reserves, a dithering Europe all but pleading with them to shore up its parlous sovereign bond markets.

The gloomy rhetoric pervading the Washington conclave meanwhile signaled that a new round of global turbulence may be at hand, and Russians cannot afford to swap leadership horses in midstream. Current president Dmitry Medvedev certainly failed to display sufficient gravitas for the role of crisis leader, and gained little traction either within the corridors of power or with the Russian public.

But Putin's indispensability is of course a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one, in theory, can replace him because he has spent 12 years concentrating power in the hands of a few friends and dependent satraps. He canceled elections for regional governors, then mayors, and tilted election rules to undermine competing parties.

The overworked phrase "authoritarian" says little about Putin. His style of governing might more aptly be described as baronial, as if a vast modern Russia could be run on the blueprint of medieval Gascony. Huge economic fiefdoms are literally divided among the boss's old friends from St. Petersburg. Boon companion Gennady Timchenko is the country's top oil trader, Putin's old judo partner Arkady Rottenberg is the largest contractor for gas monopoly Gazprom, dacha neighbor Vladimir Yakunin runs the national railroad, and so on. Ministers and governors further down the chain follow the top man's lead, as in any organization, solidifying their own little families of rent-seekers and using their "administrative resources" to crush any competitors.
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