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Economy, stability keep Putin's popularity high

One hears much about the "death of democracy" in Russia these days, especially as current President Vladimir Putin muses openly about slipping into the office of prime minister to sidestep constitutional term limits. As a former Sovietologist with a degree in Russian literature, I find this story line all too unfamiliar. But rest assured, I likewise see America's Cold War victory remaining secure.

Russia enjoyed no real democracy in the 1990s, instead suffering an economic chaos that left society prey to all manner of gangsters. Not surprisingly, average Russians craved a return to order, which finally arrived in the political ascendancy of Putin's "siloviki," or "power guys," who spent their formative years working for the KGB.

During its final years, the dysfunctional Soviet system muddled along thanks primarily to those who operated "on the left" (na levo), or in the black markets, and those who operated "on the right" (na pravo), or in the security services. The former kept the decrepit economy from collapsing; the latter kept the decrepit regime from collapsing. These were the two great talent pools for post-Soviet leadership.

The "na levo" types ruled the '90s in the form of the so-called oligarchs who swindled their way to fantastic wealth, snatching up Russia's economic crown jewels for kopecks on the ruble. Starting in 2000, that bunch was dethroned by the rising "na pravo" types, who, once in power, have likewise enriched themselves in the classic Russian style of state domination of key industries.

Putin's fantastically high approval ratings at home stem from his ability to deliver both social stability and economic growth, the latter fueled by this era's persistently high oil prices. Abroad, Putin's welcoming attitude toward foreign investment endears him to the global business community except for the energy sector, where his de facto re-nationalization of Russia's oil and gas industries sends the Kremlin back into familiar bullying mode with its neighbors.

Energy-dependent Europe grows nervous about Putin's penchant for anti-Western diatribes. But like Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, Putin's rhetoric is primarily for domestic consumption. No great worries there because, despite the steady stream of anti-U.S. propaganda, America is still more widely admired in Russia than in Western Europe.

All posturing aside, Putin's regime seems far more interested in growing Russia's 'downstream energy-sector presence (e.g., Lukoil's retail gas stations) in the West than in re-creating any Cold War dynamics. Indeed, the severely shrunken Russian military has studiously avoided interventions beyond its immediate borders. As far as the global security environment goes, Putin's "bear" remains in hibernation: some growl but no bite.

What are we to make of Putin's solid grip on power?

Befitting his Soviet roots, Russia's newest "czar" follows Vladimir Lenin's dictum that all politics can be summed up with one question: "Kto kovo?" or "Who dominates whom?" So we shouldn't expect Putin to leave Russia's political scene anytime soon, no matter which position he next assumes.

Coming out of the seven-decade coma that was the Soviet Union, Russia rejoins the world having substantially — and painfully —reinvented itself. Whatever economic statistics say, most Russians have adopted a middle-class mindset that places a premium on state-enabled stability and income growth. In this regard, it makes less sense to compare Putin to former Russian leaders and more sense to compare him to Singapore's founding father and longtime leader, Lee Kuan Yew, who, after overtly ruling for many years, still covertly steers the country as "minister mentor" to his son the prime minister.

Those in Putin's ruling cohort were all handpicked by him, with the key common denominator being longtime service at his side going all the way back to his days running St. Petersburg. These are highly educated bureaucrats who, according to a recent report by a U.S. defense think tank, have been assembled by Putin to focus on a narrow agenda: economic growth, energy exports, national projects that improve the life of the Russian people, internal security and the regime's long-term political continuity.

Add it all up and this globalization expert sees a rising power joining the global economy on its own nationalistic terms, headed up by a heavy-handed, awfully clannish, but still rather technocratic elite that aims to maximize its international leverage based on the country's most strategic assets.

Is that a scary package? Frankly, in this era it's the standard package.

Thomas P.M. Barnett is a visiting scholar at the University of Tennessee's Howard Baker Center and the senior managing director of Enterra Solutions LLC.