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Russia: ground shifting under Putin's feet? After a decade of 'stabilnost,' Russians seem increasingly forgetful of why they once wanted an authoritarian ruler.

The other evening, Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin sketched out his vision of Putin 2.0.

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Speaking to the Valdai Club, an annual gathering of foreign and Russian academics and journalists, he offered a gradualist, evolutionary path for ruling Russia through what will be his 60s. Like many men of his age, Putin dwelled on his past achievements. He offered a future policy of tweaking an already winning strategy.

Watch out, Vladimir Vladimorich, as you prepare for your second decade ruling Russia, the ground may be shifting under your feet.

As he spoke, ComScore, an internet research company was finalising a report that says Russia has overtaken Germany to have the largest number of internet users in Europe - 50.8 million people. About 40 per cent of Russian adults are now online, a figure expected to reach 60 per cent during the six-year term that Putin seeks in the March 4 presidential election.

For the first time, opposition critiques of the Putin government are regularly scoring over one million hits on the Internet. Shut out of state controlled TV, "Citizen Poet," an internet political satire show, draws six million hits weekly. YouTube, Facebook, and LiveJournal are popular mediums for unfettered debate on Russia's problems.

Two weeks before December 4 parliamentary elections, United Russia, the ruling party, was struggling with approval ratings that have slumped to 51 per cent. And in the six weeks since Putin and Russia's president Dimitry Medvedev announced their plan to switch jobs next year, Putin's approval rating has fallen to 61 per cent. That is high by Western standards, but the lowest since he first took national office in 2000.

I have seen this before, hard working dictators who perform so well, that they work themselves out of their jobs. Chile's Augusto Pinochet and Peru's Alberto Fujimori defeated armed insurgencies, ended hyperinflation and stabilised their economies. But neither leader knew when or how to exit. Voters forgot why they wanted authoritarian leaders in the first place, and then turned on their tough guys.

When I first moved to Moscow five years ago, Russian eyes would mist over and knees would grow wobbly at the mention of ... Gen. Pinochet. (I did not spoil these magic moments by describing how a large Chilean riot policeman once chased me down a street of Santiago, brandishing a large oaken club).

Russia is over its secret love affair with the Chilean Army general in the Prussian-style uniform. The Caucasus has been quieted, by rivers of rubles and by a television blackout. This quarter, Russia's economy completes its recovery from the 2008 nosedive.

Now Russians seem restless. They want more.

But it does not look as if they are going to get more under Putin 2.0.

At the Valdai dinner, it fell to Timothy Coulter, a Harvard professor, to bell the cat, to speak truth to power.

"The present model of government, which took shape in Russia in the last 10 or 12 years, appears to have exhausted its potential or is about to reach that point," said Coulter, chairman of Harvard's Government Department. Referring to conclusions adopted by the roughly 400 Valdai participants, he continued: "So the majority of our group - I don't say all, but the majority anyway - are saying this year that Russia is facing formidable challenges. And what's going on now isn't very practical. Perhaps things will look different after the elections, when you become president again. But it cannot go on and on endlessly."

He also cited the group's report that said Russia has "no efficient parliamentary system, no independent judicial system." Political parties were "imitations." And corruption was out of control.

In response, Putin responded that he had rebuilt Russia and its economy since the economic crisis of 1998 and the wars in the Caucasus. Looking ahead, he promised "modernisation," steps to increase "links" between citizens and government officials, and implementation of Russia's national development plan.

Then the official transcript stops. But the day after the meeting, I had dinner with one participant, Anatol Lieven, a professor at King's College London. He conveyed a disappointment expressed by other participants: a lack of details on modernisation, and no indication that Putin will confront corruption.

Instead, according to Prof. Lieven, Putin 2.0 may be a complacent extension of Putin 1.0, complete with scratchiness with the West.

Russia's prime minister assailed Nato's bombing campaign in Libya as "a tragedy" and "an absolute outrage." Speaking a few weeks after the death of Muammar Gaddafi, this simply reminds Libya's new leaders that Russia backed the other side in their civil war. (Note to Kremlin: If you are in a hole, stop digging!)

Putin zeroed in on missile defence, complaining that the West does not listen to him. He threatened to post his own missiles. While Putin's complaints seem sincere, they also seem irrational to many people in the West. Nato's goal of missile defence is to stop an Iranian missile from delivering a nuclear bomb to Western Europe.

Russia is believed to have about 4000 active nuclear warheads. Westerners do not see how a picket line designed to knock down one or two Iranian missiles will alter the strategic balance of power in Europe. But, as the Kremlin sees it, the camel's nose will be under the tent.

Turning to another point of contention with Europe, Putin grabbed a notebook and sketched an expose of how shale gas' "fracking" technology threatens drinking water in Europe.

Behind his concern over European water quality is the knowledge that in the past decade, shale gas rendered North America self-sufficient in natural gas. With Poland and Ukraine now investing heavily in shale gas, this new technology could further dent to natural gas prices in Western Europe.

So in the decade ahead, Russia's leadership may have to grapple with two game-changing technologies.

The internet threatens the Kremlin's carefully constructed media monopoly.

Shale gas could deliver an axe-blow to its resource-based economic model.

After a decade of 'stabilnost,' Russians seem increasing forgetful of why they once wanted an authoritarian ruler.

Looking to the decade ahead, they seem increasingly dissatisfied with a leader whose policy for the future is to tweak the status quo.

James Brooke, VOA
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Title Annotation:Opinion
Author:Brooke, James
Publication:The Sofia Echo (Sofia, Bulgaria)
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Dec 2, 2011
Words:1034
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