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20 years of Putin destabilizing the world

Soric Miodrag Kommentarbild App
Miodrag Soric
August 9, 2019

On August 9, 1999, Vladimir Putin became prime minister of Russia for the first time. Today opinions on the longtime leader have never been this divided, writes DW's Miodrag Soric — in Russia, as well as abroad.

Putin giving a speech on Red Square during a military parade marking the anniversary of the end of WWII
Image: Reuters/Sputnik/Kremlin/A. Nikolsky

In the beginning, he was the "anti-Yeltsin" — much younger than Russia's first president, full of energy, reliably quick on his feet during public appearances and averse to vodka.

Twenty years ago the then-new head of government and soon-to-be new president, Vladimir Putin, gave his deeply insecure compatriots a new sense of self-confidence. With failed democratic reforms, war in Chechnya and an economy in ruins, the 1990s were a tumultuous time for Russia.

But luck was on Putin's side. Rising commodity prices flushed billions into the treasury. He invested in the economy, paid back foreign debts and tackled poverty. With an iron fist, he ended the Chechen war and made Moscow's voice heard again on the world stage.

Read more: Putin's Russia 'is not an empire' despite Crimea annexation

A delicate sense for Russia's yearnings

Putin still banks on this reputation for turning Russia around today. He has a keen sense of many Russians' longing for stability and imperial strength. Nowadays, he presents himself as an experienced captain guiding Russia with a steady hand through the storms of the present, always defying the headwind coming from the West. He makes the promises his fellow countrymen want to hear: more money thanks to higher wages and increased social spending. Even if he doesn't keep his promises, many older Russians look the other way because they see no alternative.

Soric Miodrag
DW's Miodrag Soric

However, more and more young people are thinking differently. They live in a rapidly changing world. Teenagers hardly identify with Putin, who says that he still does not use a smartphone. Older Russians, who cherish stability, are viewed by younger generations as clinging onto power. This generation, who, like Putin, talk about the benefits of climate change, offer no outlook for young people.

Many students despise corrupt politicians, state prosecutors and judges, as well as the insatiable oligarchs. In cities, the young generation demands transparency from the government. Or "Glasnost," as it used to be called. However, a "Perestroika" — a transformation, as the second key term of the Gorbachev era was known — will not come to pass for the time being. The so-called "Silovik" — the old male leaders from the security apparatus — cannot simply be pushed aside. Not by peaceful demonstrators, anyway.

And so the Putin system continues to function: elections are rigged, the press censored and dissenters persecuted. Meanwhile, Russian society is becoming increasingly divided.

Read more: Moscow protests — 'It is our civic duty to go out on the streets'

A president who polarizes

The longer Putin is in power, the more divided opinions on him become. Millions of Russians will admire him as a president who expanded their country's influence in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere. Reactionary politicians all over the world, including in Germany, see him as a role model who shows how "national greatness" can be restored: with an iron fist and violence.

On the other hand, liberal democrats at home and abroad reject the Kremlin leader outright. They are waiting for life after Putin. But that may take a while. Twenty years in power is not enough to take stock: Putin's fourth term as president lasts until 2024. He has thus far left it open as to whether he intends to govern beyond that.

The Putin we see today is not the same politician we saw 20 years ago. He used to tout himself as a partner for the West. Now he is battling the US-influenced world order. Together with authoritarian rulers in China and Iran, he is making the world less secure. For everyone — including Russians.