After independence, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov could not manage to stop the criminal activities of the warlords and the spread of global Islamist movements into Chechnya. 1999 witnessed multiple Islamist incursions from Chechnya into the neighboring Russian province of Dagestan—with the Chechen warlords declaring their desire for an Islamic state—and bomb attacks on residential buildings in Moscow attributed to the Chechens. In response, the ailing Yeltsin launched a second war on Chechnya.

The failures of the 1990s—whether with Chechnya, the economy, or political "civil wars"—have had a lasting impact on the contemporary situation. They contribute even today to the discrediting of so-called democratic or liberal parties. As a result, Putin's opposition has little if any popular support. Former liberal parties such as Yabloko or The Union of Right Forces are for the most part discredited because they have not performed a mea culpa to apologize for their role in the problems of the 1990s. In public opinion, these groups embody the brutality of the changes made in the Yeltsin years, the negative social impact of 1990s privatizations, the monopolizing of national assets by oligarchs, and the disasters of Chechnya. References to the West as a model are often badly received by the majority of the population, which is above all concerned that the country to get back on its feet and stabilize.

The new opposition, which is embodied by the Other Russia party and Garry Kasparov, has little popular legitimacy. It has no social base except in politically active milieus (NGO's and defenders of Human Rights), which are scarcely representative of public opinion. Opposition figures are often suspected of only wanting to have themselves noticed by the western media. They are criticized for lacking any real ideas for the future of the country.

It is in this traumatizing context of the first decade after the Soviet Union—too often forgotten in the West—that Putin's success has occurred.

Reconciliation through Patriotism

If the 1990s comprise the years of ideological polarization and the birth of a trend towards "patriotic centrism," the years since 2000 should be viewed as a period of political consensus and re-centralization around what is politically possible, with the presidential party as the core and Russian national triumph as the rhetoric.

The Putin government has aimed over the past few years to make Russia into one of the 21st century's world leaders, one which embraces the game of globalization and knows how to take advantage of it. It has championed technological modernity, the necessity of being efficient and competitive in a fast-moving, international market economy, and the effective utilization of the country's human potential and natural resources. For the Putin group, economic success brings not only riches to the political and business elites, but also political power and international authority. As such, they see an important role for the state in ensuring economic performance.

To achieve this end, the political power elites around Putin have worked to mobilize the population behind the state enterprise, at the same time that they have restricted the people's political freedoms. On one hand, they have successfully improved the living standards of the Russian people, making it plain to the citizenry that the Putin path will lead to material advantages. Positive changes to the everyday lives of Russians have produced growing grass roots support and enthusiasm for Russia's current trajectory.

On the other hand, Putin and most politicians have turned increasingly to a patriotic rhetoric that attempts to enlist the population to rebuild a Great Russia. Here, the group around Putin has offered an implicit trade-off. In return for generally opting out of politics and leaving such matters in the hands the current power-brokers, the Russian people will receive material well-being and renewed pride in their country.

Nationalist issues, expressed under the label "patriotism", have become defining components of Russia's political language in the sense that all parties speak it. No public figure, regardless of his or her function, is able to acquire political legitimacy without mentioning his or her attachment to the Russian motherland and without justifying his or her policy choices in terms of the nation's supreme interests. Although this sort of patriotic rhetoric is common in many democratic countries, it took on new meaning and form for Russia over the last decade. The legitimacy or illegitimacy of policy proposals is now decided primarily in the context of this patriotic refrain.

The focus on "patriotism" is a sign of de-politicization. Political life is no longer structured by the competition between different visions of the world, between different ideologies or approaches to politics (such as the ideological differences between Yeltsin's liberals and the Communists in the 1990s). Instead, Russian politics has become divided between different factions of like-minded thinkers, all connected to the Kremlin, whose struggles are often turf wars internal to the bureaucracies. In the absence of meaningful public debate on what political, social, and economic direction Russian society should take, patriotism has become theideological posture shared by all parties.

Words and terms that were confined in the 1990s to the most radical and unappealing nationalist movements (like that of Zhirinovsky, the butt of many jokes by American television's late night talk show hosts in the 1990s) are today fully part of Russian public life and can no longer be seen as extreme. Public speeches are filled with references to Russia as a "Great Power" (derzhavnost' or velikoderzhavnost'), to "statehood" (gosudarstvennost'), to the preservation of the nation (sberezhenie natsii), to empire (imperiia), and to the Motherland (rodina) or Fatherland (otechestvo).

This new patriotism is not as rigid an ideology as Marxism-Leninism was in the Soviet days and it is partly empty of content. Those who refuse to present themselves as "patriots" are de-legitimated and ushered off the public stage. But as soon as a politician displays his or her patriotism, they are free to speak from and for a variety of political viewpoints (monarchy or republic, tsarist or Soviet nostalgia, orthodoxy or secularity, ethnic or imperial definition of Russianness, etc.).

However, the political patriotism of Putin's government has of late been taking on more concrete forms and agendas. We can see this process, for example, in the education sector with the implementation of so-called "patriotic" education programs for youth, debates on the introduction of courses on orthodox culture in schools, the publication of new history textbooks rehabilitating Stalin, the Kremlin's forming of pro-presidential youth movements, etc. The cult of the Second World War, which has continued on from the Soviet period, is omnipresent in the new patriotic politics as an example of a winning Russia in which more wins are to come (so different from Yeltsin's weak Russia).

Perhaps most importantly, the newly prominent and politically charged rhetoric about the greatness of the Motherland is well-received in society. Even in the many non-Russian regions of Russia (for example, in the Muslim and Turkic-speaking regions of the Volga-Urals), this "Russian" patriotism is looked on favorably. To be sure, the latter express concerns that the ideas of the new "patriotism" will become overly "Russifying." They work hard to emphasize a "trans-ethnic," political patriotism that recognizes the country's religious, linguistic, and national diversity. Yet, the call for a Great Russia catches the ear of most people in Russia.

An Omnipresent, but Weak State?

For all its aspirations at controlling political power and motivating Russian society to economic progress, just how real is the power of the Russian presidential state? The answer to this question—that the Kremlin is often a lot weaker than it would like to be and less powerful than it is often portrayed in the Western press—is especially important to understanding Russian politics after the Putin era.

Putin still cannot always choreograph the political process in the ways that he and his associates might like, despite the omnipresence of the President and his associates in public life, the media black-out of other parties, the accusations of fraud and of ballot fixing in certain regions of Russia (for example, the 99% of votes for United Russia in Chechnya), and the arrests of opponents.

For instance, the results of United Russia in the December parliamentary elections were not a complete success. The party expected to get over 70%—not the 60% that it did receive—and the hardly joyous demeanor of party leaders the night of the elections confirmed their disappointment. Despite the Kremlin's immediate self-congratulations about this "referendum" for the outgoing President, the much-awaited plebiscite did not fulfill expectations. The party's poor scores in Moscow and Saint Petersburg (approximately 50% of the votes) confirmed that part of the Russian middle classes is not convinced that the Putin elites have the ability to get the country back on its feet.

Moreover, the President's hold on central power is in some respects contingent, requiring a delicate balancing act of different power groups and interests. If political and economic power is very largely concentrated in the Kremlin's hands, it must be remembered that this "Kremlin" is complex. Similar to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Presidential Administration is not a monolithic and uniform entity. It is populated by multiple "clans" and representatives of diverse economic and political interests that are in more or less overt conflict. The liberals, who have no past in the secret services and military, battle the siloviki, who do. The networks of Gazprom struggle for resources with those of Rosneft. The "Petersbourgeois" who grew up at Putin's side wrestle with the former high functionaries who joined the Presidential Administration well before them in the 1990s.

The idea that Putin alone carries the country's political torch is therefore illusory: he is as much the organizer as the hostage of these clans, who themselves defend interests of a scope that largely exceeds the figure of the President. The balancing game Putin has to play is therefore particularly complex and could turn against him once he becomes Prime Minister.

In addition, Russia's economic successes must be put in context: the Russian economy is still largely extractive (oil, gas, precious metals), which engenders a huge corruption, massive social inequalities (if poverty is declining, it remains endemic and inequalities are widening), and inflation levels difficult to control. Despite the massive "rainy day fund" that Putin's government has stashed away, the economy remains susceptible to price swings on the world market. At the moment, the price of a barrel of crude oil does not encourage the state and large companies to redirect their priorities. The result is that productivity growth and economic diversification are too weak to guarantee long-term economic development.

Lastly, political power has yet to accept Russia's main challenge: the country's demographic collapse. Male life expectancy is no more than 60 years and Russia will lose some 17 million inhabitants between now and 2025, which, unless an open immigration policy is not rapidly implemented, will slow economic growth. The Kremlin seems aware of its weaknesses: were there to be an economic crisis, the social contract with the population, which accepts the regime's authoritarianism in exchange for a guarantee of increasing living standards, would be very rapidly revoked.

After Putin

To understand the sustainability of Putin's success and the Kremlin's capacity to manipulate the country's political life and civil society, one must recognize the fundamental humiliations that were inflicted on Russia in the 1990s. Broad sectors of Russian society support the powers that be in their declarations of nationalism and national pride. Putin's focus on a positive self-image for Russia (and a dogged refusal to engage in the self-disparagement that characterized the 1990s) is intended to smooth the economic upturn and society's "recovery." To this end, the Kremlin urges families to do their military service, have children, stop drinking, and participate in charity works to compensate for the state's weaknesses, and so on.

The stakes of patriotic recovery can thus be likened to a feeling of "revenge" for the upheavals of the 1990s, but equally to a desire of Russian citizens for "normality." They want to live in a politically and economically functioning state, in which they can imagine a future. This situation has for now meant a narrowing of political life and a hardening of Moscow's relations with western countries.

However, certain gains of the 1990s have not been questioned: freedom of movement, private property, the right to entrepreneurship, and the resolute commitment of large Russian companies to the market economy and globalization, for example.


UPDATE (June 30 2008)

As observers had anticipated, the Kremlin orchestrated perfectly its victory in the Presidential elections of March 2, 2008. Russia elected Vladimir Putin's official heir, Dmitry Medvedev, to the presidency of the republic with over 70% of the votes. The new President was installed on May 7, and the following day the Duma (Russia's parliament) nominated Putin to become Prime Minister, receiving 392 votes for and 56 (mostly the Communists) against.

However, beneath this controlled exterior, the Russian political system remains in certain respects unstable. For the first time Russia will have two centers of political power: the President and his officials in the Kremlin, on one hand, and the formerly weak Prime Minister and the Duma, on the other hand. There is no recent tradition of such diarchy, and while many analysts have assumed that Putin would ensure a shift of certain (if not most) powers from the Presidency to the Prime Minister's office, such a transfer is by no means guaranteed.

This two-headed system could prove to be a dangerous instrument in the hands of Kremlin elites, who are not inclined to consensus-building. The power relationship between the country's two strongmen remains to be negotiated, and while Medvedev continues to show deference to Putin, it remains unclear when and whether he will attempt to wrest the reins of power from his predecessor.

On domestic and foreign policy, Putin continues to position himself as the country's undisputed leader. He has persuaded many of his close associates to leave the Presidential Administration and has installed them in United Russia (Putin's political party) or the Duma. The Presidential Party, for its part, continues to make guarded, not to mention critical, comments of the new president.

So, at present Dmitry Medvedev seems to have little room for manoeuvre. And notwithstanding his repeated assertions that he alone will decide the course of the country, he has no loyal team surrounding him and in fact seems rather isolated. The figure of Medvedev may well end up polarizing the competition between liberal circles and those of the more hawkish siloviki (men of the army, militia, and special and secret services). Putin, by contrast, managed to balance their power relations with relative success.

This new diarchic system is also going to have to handle an international situation ripe for major tensions, most especially in Georgia, where Kosovo's independence has reopened the question of the secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In this context, both this year's great May 9 military parade—to show off Russia's new missiles and tanks in the Red Square and mark its return as a military power—and the present discussions on whether to have Mischa—the bear that was the emblem of the 1980 Moscow Olympic games—as the official mascot of the 2014 Sochi winter Olympics, confirm today that references to Soviet-era grandeur can still act as key elements of consensus among Russian political elites. The tone of Medvedev's recent speech at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum also underscored Russia's continued frustration with U.S. claims to global hegemony and further pushed Russia's agenda to become a world economic power.