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    Putin to Resume Presidency

    Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a meeting with the main Kremlin party United Russia in Moscow, April 24, 2012.
    Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a meeting with the main Kremlin party United Russia in Moscow, April 24, 2012.
    James Brooke

    On May 7, Vladimir Putin returns to the Kremlin to rule Russia as president. He inherits one of Europe's strongest economies. But he also faces a changed political reality - a better informed Russian populace that has learned to stand up to its leaders.

    When Putin returns to Russia's presidency on Monday, he will inherit an economy that is the envy of Europe.

    The government budget is balanced. Debt, inflation and unemployment are low. Reserves are high. And, the economy is growing at more than 4 percent - almost three times the level of Western Europe.

    But this prosperity depends heavily on high oil and gas prices.

    Anders Aslund, a Russia specialist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, warns that Putin needs to diversify Russia's economy - and to save for drops in energy prices.

    "Within the next two years, the oil price will peak out, if it hasn't already. Then we should expect a more moderate oil price. And, that means that he will have to economize," said Aslund.

    Call for political freedom

    For some Russians, high commodity prices have brought affluence. For others, the key is simply stability. And, with stability, they are asking for more political freedom.

    Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin advisor, says Putin faces a different Russia than the one he ruled in 2008. That is the year he surrendered the presidency and became prime minister.

    Pavlovsky says that Russia is no longer a virtual monarchy. The street protests of last winter popped the illusion that Putin is infallible.

    In response to last December's protests, President Dmitry Medvedev announced political reforms.

    Six months later, critics say one reform - direct elections for governors - has been changed to the point where the Kremlin will have veto power over candidates. A second reform - making it easier to register political parties - is splintering the opposition into dozens of little parties.

    Konstantin von Eggert, a columnist for state news agency Ria Novosti, believes that civic movements will prove to be the building blocks for a more open political system in Russia.

    "The current wave of protests was proceeded around 2006, 2007, 2008 or 2009 by a huge increase in charitable and voluntary activities among Russians, especially in the big cities," said von Eggert. "These were not supposed to be political things, and lots of these people were saying, you know we are not in politics, we just helping people who suffer from forest fires or orphaned children, or organizing gift collection for the homeless."

    Changed political reality

    This new sense of empowerment is creating a Russia that talks back to its leadership.

    In mid-April, Putin visited Russia's Duma to give his last address as prime minister. When he made light of a mayoral candidate's hunger strike, an opposition group of deputies stood up and walked out.

    Two weeks later, the candidate suspended his hunger strike after forcing central election authorities to admit widespread voting irregularities in his city, Astrakhan. Meanwhile, in three other major cities, opposition candidates were elected mayors in the last two months.

    Russians now ask - will Putin be flexible enough to adapt to this new reality and serve to the end of his six-year term?

    Pavlovsky, the former Kremlin aide says Putin is one of the most flexible politicians he knows. But he says that if Putin cannot reach out and build new partnerships and build a new political consensus, Russia will face a political crisis within a few years.

    One topic that unites Russian people against the government is corruption.

    Transparency International ranks countries on the perceived level of corruption, with the lowest score representing the worst corruption. Last year, Russia came in 143rd place, tied with Nigeria, also a major oil exporter.

    In the fight against corruption, a blogger called Putin's ruling United Russia Party "the party of crooks and thieves." The label stuck, and last week, Putin handed leadership of the party to Medvedev.

    "Russia is different in the sense that fear and hopelessness are gone from Russia. And, I think that they are gone for good," said the columnist Von Eggert.

    Now, as Vladimir Putin starts a new six-year term in the Kremlin, the question is - can he stay on top of a more transparent, more pluralistic society?

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    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Ed Dolan
    May 06, 2012 5:04 PM
    I agree that Russia is doing better than some countries of Western Europe, but still, the Russian economy is no longer the big plus for Putin that it once was. Macro policy is not being managed as well as when Kudrin was finance minister, and altho Russia has lots of oil, it's mostly high-cost oil. See full analysis here: http://tiny.cc/gqt9j

    by: Jacques
    May 05, 2012 6:39 AM
    As free as the wind! Now that it's official and the Lada is to be retired an indication that Putin like Peter the Great is trying to modernize (westernize) Russia the question to me is ? Was Mr. as Putin while Prime Minister able to modernize his bureaucracy so that transparency and rule of law will abate international criticism while allowing democracy to evolve?

    by: Gennady
    May 02, 2012 6:06 PM
    To GREEN: You’re unaware of the mismanagement of the economy. Russia is a land of a record number of billionaires and awashed with petrodollars but its 70% of infrastructure is worn out and close to technogenic catastrophes. Up to 90% of population live in poverty, average monthly pension is 285-300$ (1 kilo of meat 10$).Unemployment is low due to dying-out population, shortage of qualified staff, works, factories & mills are shut, public education, healthcare & science are beyond repair.

    by: Green to Gennady
    May 02, 2012 7:50 AM
    Gennady, What I would like to mention is the management of the economy not the election. Democracy is not the son of poverty, chaos, disorder, unemployment and so on. The grass is always greener on the other side of the hill. Obama cannot compare with Putin!

    by: Gennady
    May 02, 2012 4:44 AM
    To GREEN:
    Certainly, “Putin is among the most capable…” as he has conducted his “election” under undeclared state of emergency with gagged press @ TV and Rights and Freedoms of Man and Citizen stipulated in articles 17.1,22.1,29.1,29.5,31, 56.1 of Russian Constitution suspended. B.Obama could easily outperform him if he had done the same. I wonder, are you that misinformed or do you serve the FSB?

    by: Green
    May 01, 2012 9:00 PM
    Like it or not, you have to admit that Putin is among the most capable men on earth. Russian economy is so strong not because of the prices of oil and gases but as the result of Putin's effective management of the economy. Russians are lucid to have chosen him as President again. Even Obama cannot perform better than Putin.

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