I admit it: I slept through the Russian presidential election of last month, which saw Vladimir Putin win a third term for a newly extended period of six years. This is unforgivable given my lifelong fascination for Russia and eight-year stay in the country as Moscow correspondent prior to MIT. My life and duties at the Institute have indeed kept me very distant from all things “Russia” — 4,482.88 miles away to be precise (Boston-Moscow distance).
One thing is sure about Putin: he is smart, very smart. You have to be, to maintain order over nine time zones, and stay at the top of the inner fightings of competing factions among the siloviki, desperate to protect the millions they have at stake from Russia’s economic boom. Putin has proved himself uniquely able to adroitly balance the various strategic interests of the competing parties. He has so far been a master at managing divisions within the government — and Russians know this.
The United States and its supporters have hardly been able to contain their excitement at the winds of democratic change that they perceive as blowing in the Arab world and other regions following recent anti-government uprisings. But this has often led to misinterpretation and inflation of the actual number and honorable motives of the protesters. The Western media’s assessment of the recent street protests in Russia is no exception. The misjudgment and embellishment of the popular opposition and reactionary forces in Russian society by the West is in fact not confined to their size, but also their quality — or one could say, the “spirit” behind them.