His authority is unquestioned, his popularity overwhelming. Yet Russia's future under his stewardship is hazy. Four years ago, Putin's election was greeted as a symbol of renewal. Now Putin is increasingly seen, especially outside Russia, as personifying a restoration of the Soviet mentality, if not its menace.
Putin's image is that of an energetic, forceful reformer. He has restored Russia's selfconfidence after a miserable decade of chaos and humiliation. Yet the buoyant economy is held up by oil and natural-gas priceswhich once made the Soviet Union seem like the way of the future, until prices collapsed. Putin has not used the boom to diversify the country's economic base. He claims victory in Chechnya but has only devastated the tiny republic, not pacified it. Hard-line Chechen secessionists are waging a pitiless war of urban terrorism in Moscow and elsewhere. Russia is a much more dangerous place to live now than before Putin came to power. In politics, he speaks of democracy but opts for authoritarianism. The result is in all but name a one-party system in which suspicion of the West and the private sector is rising. Yet little of that is reflected in the Russian media, whose key outlets transmit only the Kremlin's rosy version of reality.
Meanwhile, truly menacing problemsone of the world's fastest-growing HIV/AIDS infection rates, negative population growth, pollutionare largely ignored. The overall picture is that of a risk- averse, cynical leader. Time is running out for Putin. If his second term goes the same way as his first, he will be remembered as the man who could have done great things but succeeded only in leading Russia down yet another historical blind alley.
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