Sunday, February 01, 2009

Putin without prosperity?

Long-time Russia watchers like myself have watched in dismay as Vladimir Putin put an end to the relatively liberal climate that had existed in the new independent Russian state since its creation in l991. Boris Yeltsin's Russia was a fairly shoddy, disorganized, shambolic entity, but the press was free, foreigners were welcomed and you didn't have the impression someone was watching you all the time--on a scale of one to ten, the creepy/oppressiveness factor was down in the 3-4 range.

All that changed when Vladimir Putin took power. Suddenly, we were back to one man, one voice, one truth...Putin gradually put an end to independent voices in the media, either strongarming or sicking the tax police on them, physically did away with those who challenged his leadership(see Mikhail Khodorkovskii, the Bill Gates of Russia, now doing 20 years at hard labor)and ratcheted up the creepiness factor in all kinds of indisious ways, e.g. ensnaring unsuspecting foreigners in catch-22 airport customs traps. I once found myself threatened with a huge fine or worse because i lacked a stamp that no one would give me on the way into the country. I kept asking, "can I give myself a customs stamp," and the malevolent agent kept replying, "you should've gotten this stamp, it was your responsibility." I got out of trouble by backing away from him and opportunistically slinking over to another line, presided over by someone obviously too drunk even to raise his head. His hand waved me through without examination...but i got the point. You are being watched.

What bugged me was that no one seemed to mind any of the above outrages, or the saber-rattling, chip-on-shoulder rhetoric about NATO and the US that has become so typical of that regime. It seemed that Vladimir Putin could do no wrong, but it was always pointed out that he was riding on sky-high oil prices, and Russia had a lot of oil. Russians had some of the trickle-down, were feeling prosperous, so why bother? Why gum up the works with a personal protest when I can now take a holiday at the beach in Bulgaria, or even GREECE?!

Well, we are about to find out how popular Putin and his Kremlin-knows-best, top-down, I-give-orders management style will be with oil prices at $50/less per barrel rather then $150. Tantalizingly, we already are getting some idea based on today's round of street protests, still relatively limited in scope but nationwide. Read about them here and wonder whether this all could be happening to a more deserving individual(!).


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