Russia: a country of Tsars

Vladimir Putin looks set to be in charge until 2024, but his hold on power could extend way beyond then.

Putin was President for two tax-reforming terms until 2008, when his stand-in took over for one spell. The constitution enforced the change. Now the real power in Russia looks likely to resume his seat at the Kremlin. And Dmitri Medvedev will move to the prime minister's office, no doubt. Mikhael Gorbachev (the F.W. de Klerk of Russian history) has said this bodes ill for his country, as Russia must get past this "impasse" and not waste a further six years. He didn't appear to elaborate. Not so surprising, as words can cost dearly in Russia these days.

Vladimir Putin is the most popular politician in Russia by far, it appears. People think he's forthright and dynamic, and he probably is. Yet the inter-relationship between politics and business has been severely criticised by commentators, and we're all aware of the infamous oligarchy. 

Putin was a member of the KGB from 1975, and "resigned from the active state security services at the beginning of 1992, after the defeat of the KGB-supported abortive putsch against Soviet President Michael Gorbachev" noted Vladimir Pribylovsky, a historian and human rights activist. 

It appears Russians are used to being ruled by strong-men. 

In the days of the supreme ruling monarchy, the Tsarist regime possessed incredible power. The Tsars reigned with an iron grip over their vast empire, maintaining control through a complex secret service network. While France and Britain had developed constitutional government, Russia was still an autocratic state until the first Revolution in 1905 resulted in the rise of the Dumas (or parliamentary government). The 1917 Revolution returned Russia to autocratic rule under the Bolsheviks, and Communist dictators ran the country for 75 years. 

The reformist Gorbachev ended ultra-control and reduced state power to free his people. But he also facilitated the break-up of the wider empire, as satellite states spun off to become independent. Many in Russia, look back fondly to the Soviet years, of inter-dependence between numurous countries, and the relative safety and security existing under supreme state control from Moscow.

But Russians have never experienced ultimate freedoms, therefore. They might no longer queue for bread or yearn for a pair of jeans, as was the case in those lean years until the 1990s. In those days restrictions of speech, writing and movement meant that dissent was greeted by a long spell in the gulag labour camps of Siberia. 

In Russia these days there appears to be an outward sign of prosperity, and people seem to move freely both within Russia and on trips abroad. But serious criticism and dissidence is still treated severely.

As Al Jazeera reported "Finance minister fired following refusal to serve under President Medvedev when he swaps post with Prime Minister Putin." Russian FM Alexei Kudrin was respected by the international community and his loss from government may be felt. Investors will be perturbed by this news, as he was regarded as a relatively effective steward of economic policy.

The treatment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an unlikely hero of dissent as a former Yukos oil baron and oligarch, is evidence of the harsh realities in Russia today. Even the Obama administration criticised the imprisonment of Khodorkovsky for alleged tax evasion as bringing "the Russian legal system into question" alerted UPI.

In certain ways life hasn't changed so very much from the days of Tsar Alexander III, Joseph Stalin or Nikita Khrushchev, when the power of the state held sway in all things and people were wary of what they said and to whom they spoke.

Vladimir Putin is the latest in a long line of excessively powerful leaders who've maintained control for extended periods. His influence is vast, as British PM David Cameron's deferential demeanour at his recent meeting in Moscow exemplified. People take Putin very seriously, both inside and outside Russia. Particularly the Europeans, who depend precariously on Russia for so much of their gas supply.

The Russians themselves have known it no other way. Perhaps it's in their national character to defer to authority. Maybe that's the way they like it. But Russia is developing less rapidly than other BRICs bar Brazil. Furthermore, according to The Economist this week, its economy is growing less fast than those of its old satellite friends in the Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS.

Growth rates in 2011 using sources IMF, UN and The Economist:

China 10.6%
India 8.0%
CIS 6.8%
Russia 4.7%
Brazil 3.9%.

China isn't very free either politically, it has to be said. But economically, freedoms in China are almost as cherished as they are in America. India is democratic and increasingly free economically, as robust constraints to foreign competition by high import tarifs are removed by New Delhi.

Of course, western-style democracy and economic liberalism doesn't appeal to everyone. Or, deep down, does it?

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