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Putin's Hundred Days

This week marked the first 100 days of Vladimir Putin’s “new” presidency, and, although in his case the measure is more than dubious (as of August 9th, Putin has ruled Russia, as either premier or president, for 13 continuous years), it is an opportune milestone to gauge the direction of his policies. The “hundred days” brought few surprises. The principal purpose of Putin’s administration, it appears, has been revenge for the humiliation of last December, when, following a 100,000-strong pro-democracy rally in central Moscow, the Kremlin was forced—for the first time during Putin’s rule—to give concessions to the opposition by reinstating direct gubernatorial elections, registering opposition parties, and easing hurdles for presidential candidates.

The plethora of repressive bills that Putin signed into law during his first 100 days (back) in the Kremlin would make any dictatorial regime envious. The law on public rallies raised the maximum fine for “violations” to 300,000 rubles ($9,400)—ten times Russia’s average monthly salary. The law on nongovernmental organizations required NGOs that receive funding from abroad (including such groups as Memorial and For Human Rights) to tag themselves as “foreign agents.” The law on “slander” reinstated the act as a criminal offense—no doubt, to be used against independent journalists, opposition politicians, and other government critics—punishable by up to 5 million rubles ($157,000). Eleven opposition activists, meanwhile, are still being held in pretrial detention in connection with the May 6th anti-inauguration protests in Moscow.

“Putin has managed to diffuse the critical phase of the crisis, but the crisis is not over … and the protests will likely resume in the fall,” predicted political analyst Pavel Svyatenkov. He is not alone. It is widely acknowledged that the stagnation (or, as Kremlin strategists preferred to term it, “stability”) of Putin’s first years is decidedly over. No repressive measures can preclude a growing realization among middle-class Russians that authoritarian kleptocracy is a way to nowhere. “Russia’s middle class which is increasingly mature and increasingly aware of its interests … is categorically unwilling to exist within the political system that Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] wishes to preserve,” suggested commentator Vladimir Slatinov, who estimates the new middle class at between 25 and 33 percent of the country’s population. A recent survey by the Kremlin-friendly Public Opinion Foundation showed that confidence in Putin among the population at large has fallen from 55 percent in March to 44 percent in early August.

As the new political season opens in the fall, the Kremlin should brace itself for more trouble. Russia’s opposition is determined to regain the initiative—not only at the September 15th “March of Millions” that is slated to be held in all major cities and towns across the country, but also in the October 14th local and regional elections, which, for the first time in years, will see participation by independent opposition parties.

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