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Why Putin Is Tottering

David Satter

Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia is again in political crisis. The 60,000 people who protested in Moscow earlier this month signal the rebirth of political opposition. The regime of Vladimir Putin will not fall overnight. But it is vulnerable, and Mr. Putin’s goal of being president for life is no longer assured.

The immediate cause of the Dec. 10 demonstration, and the one on Saturday before Christmas, was the evidence of vote fraud in the parliamentary elections. An analysis of the vote by the Russian monitoring group Grazhdanin Nabludatel based on polling places it monitored, where no violations occurredsuggests that the pro-Putin United Russia party received 30% of the vote, not 49% as it claims.

Fraudulent election results and tacticsbribery, ballot stuffing, multiple voting and falsification of protocolsare hardly new in Russia. What was different this time was that the evidence came to light only 10 weeks after Mr. Putin announced that he would run again for the presidency, with current President Dmitry Medvedev willingly standing aside.

This convinced many Russians that the Medvedev presidency, in which they had placed their hopes, had been little more than a masquerade, and that Mr. Putin planned to remain in power until 2024. The only serious reform Mr. Medvedev carried out as president was to change the presidential term from four years to six.

The prospect of Mr. Putin in power for another 12 years is one reason, according to a recent poll from the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, that 22% of Russians want to leave the country. In the 18-24 age group, the number was almost 40%.

Another reason is the most inescapable fact of life in Russia today: rampant corruption. After the chaos of the 1990s, during which many government institutions barely functioned, Mr. Putin succeeded in establishing the authority of the state. But criminality didn’t declineit merely migrated to the organs of the government.

It is normal in Russia to bribe bureaucrats for routine approvals. Within the system of state procurement, kickbacks account for as much as 50% of the cost of purchases. Russians pay bribes to register property, fix a traffic ticket, avoid the draft, and secure places for children in school. According to Transparency International, Russia ranks 154th out of 178 countries in corruptionon a level with Cambodia and the Central African Republic.

Russians are also plagued by a fear of terrorism. On Jan. 24, a suicide bombing at Domodedovo Airport, Moscow’s main air hub, left 36 dead and 160 wounded. Doku Umarov, the self-styled emir of the North Caucasus Islamic Republic, claimed responsibility for the attack, which came nine months after the suicide bombings of two Moscow metro stations. According to press reports, the government received anonymous warnings in early January of an impending terrorist attack on one of the Moscow airports, but it took no extra preventive measures. Instead, the number of police at Domodedovo was cut by 50% and many of those left devoted themselves to extorting bribes from arriving passengers from Central Asia.

After the attacks on the Moscow metro, Mr. Putin vowed to reach the terrorists “in their sewers.” But neither this nor any of his previous threats have improved the situation. The cost of his drive to crush Chechen separatism and to dominate the North Caucasus by force has been an expanding insurgency fueled both by separatism and Islamic extremism. The number of terrorist incidents grew sixfold between 2000 and 2009, to 738 from 135, and Moscow remains the only European capital to be hit repeatedly by terrorists.

Russian insecurity also derives from the absence of the rule of law. A striking example was the second conviction, in 2010, of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos Oil Company, for stealing some 200 million tons of oil from Yukos subsidiaries. Years before, at his first trial, Mr. Khodorkovsky had been convicted of failing to pay taxes on the sale of the oil he was now accused of stealing. In both trials, Mr. Khodorkovsky was an obvious victim of selective prosecution, Kremlin retribution for his political independence and efforts to transform Yukos into an enterprise with Western standards of corporate governance.

But Russia’s unfair legal system touches ordinary citizens too. The acquittal rate in Russia is less than 1% (compared to 15% in U.S. federal courts and 15%-40% in state courts). Many convictions are obtained with the help of beatings, intimidation and blackmail. For this and other reasons, Russians file more complaints with the European Court of Human Rights than people from any other of the 46 countries in the Council of Europe.

Many questions shadow the first Putin presidency. These include the 1999 arrest of Federal Security Service (FSB) agents for attempting to bomb an apartment building in Ryazan, an incident that was never explained; the government’s decisions to use force in hostage situationsfirst in a Moscow theater in 2002, in which 129 people died, and then in a Beslan school in 2004, when 332 died including 186 children; the nuclear poisoning of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London; and the unsolved murders of Russian journalists, including Anna Politkovskaya.

For a long time, none of this seemed to have a serious impact on public opinion. Russians were aware of the corruption and abuses, but Mr. Putin retained support because during his two terms as president the economy grew at an average annual rate of 7% (driven largely by high oil prices), and officially measured poverty was cut in half, to 14% in 2008 from 30% in 2000. Mr. Putin also reinforced his position with military success (particularly the extremely popular 2008 war with Georgia), anti-Western propaganda, and nostalgia for the Soviet Union.

That nostalgia was ironic. Though Mr. Putin restored the Soviet anthem, glorified the Russian state and ignored efforts to memorialize Communism’s victims, he failed to learn the lesson of the Soviet Union’s fall: A stable regime needs guiding values. The Soviet Union had an ideology which it imposed by force. As long as it defined the mental categories for millions of people, the regime was secure. When it was discredited, the fault lines began to appear and the totalitarian regime fell.

The weakness of today’s Russia is that Communist values were never succeeded by genuinely democratic norms. Without these norms, Mr. Putin’s desire to rule forever is unrealistic. Even the effect of relative prosperity begins to wear off for a population forced to live with rampant lawlessness. This is the reason that the waves of protest in Russia will continueand that, 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians have another chance to gain the democracy that they sought but didn’t achieve after Communism’s fall.

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