As Vladimir Putin begins his third term as President of Russia, his highest priorities are population growth and economic recovery. Increasing democracy in the country is not on the agenda.
Gerhard Schröder, Silvio Berlusconi, Alexander Lukashenko, Nursultan Nazarbayev, Viktor Yanukovych - the list of high-ranking politicians that Vladimir Putin invited to his presidential inauguration on Monday says a lot about his international connections. These are the people who are considered to have good relations with the Kremlin: the controversial former heads of government of Germany and Italy and three authoritarian presidents of former Soviet republics Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.
Putin himself is not an uncontroversial "Father of the Nation," despite his efforts to present himself that way. Although he won the 2012 presidential election with 64 percent of votes, his campaign triggered the biggest mass protests that Russia has seen since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Tens of thousands demonstrated in Moscow alone, taking a stand against anticipated election manipulation. In later stages, the protest turned more against Putin personally.
Growing middle-class opposition
Most of the protesters of the "For Free Elections" movement are from the middle class. This class emerged during Putin's reign, points out Hans-Henning Schröder from Berlin-based think tank Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP). Now, some members of the middle class are turning away from Putin.
"The problem is that an old president, who did his job for eight years, is faced with a new society," Schröder said.
Putin first walked down the red carpet in the Grand Kremlin Palace on December 31, 1999, following Boris Yeltsin's surprise resignation. Three months later, the acting president was elected to the first of two terms in office, but was forced to vacate the position in 2008 as the Russian constitution only allows a maximum of two consecutive presidential terms.
After four years as prime minister, Putin is now returning to the Kremlin, switching places with Dmitry Medvedev, who served as Russia's president from 2008. When the deal was made public in the fall of 2011, it looked like the duo wanted to demonstrate continuity in Russian politics - but many Russians felt they had been duped. According to Lyudmila Alexeyeva from the Moscow Helsinki Group, an NGO that monitors human rights, many people were outraged that Putin and Medvedev could decide together who should rule the country.
Western experts such as Putin biographer Alexander Rahr, head of the Berthold Beitz Center at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), believe that Putin should involve civil society more in politics.
"The middle class has become a sizeable political group that cannot be as easily satisfied as the working class with promises of social solutions," said Rahr, adding that the protesters will not give up until "certain liberal political freedoms" are restored in Russia.
Social and economic measures
Just this winter, outgoing president Medvedev announced several reforms. Some of them have been implemented by the parliament. One of them eases registration requirements for political parties and another envisages restoring direct elections of provincial governors.
"This is not the start of a new era but a small step in the right direction," said Schröder. However, he also believes that these reforms will be carried out in such a way so as not to have a detrimental effect on Putin's power.
Around one month before his election, Putin outlined his political plans as president. He identified five challenges that he intended to tackle. His first priority was to stop Russia's shrinking population from shrinking further. He also wanted to make positive contributions to security, job creation and economic performance, as well as establish a Eurasian union with former Soviet republics.
Hope for more democracy
The reason why liberal reforms were not among Putin's priorities is simple. "A good president is one who does what his people expect from him," said Putin in an interview with German broadcasting network ARD before his reelection. To understand his policies, one only needs to look at Russian opinion survey results. Two-thirds of Russians are expecting the president to continue on his current political path.
The survey participants named economic recovery and combating corruption and poverty as the most important tasks for the president to focus on. Democracy, meanwhile, is an important topic among the educated minority. How long Putin can rule Russia against the will of an ever-increasing opposing minority remains to be seen.
The west hopes for Russia's democratization during Putin's third presidential term. "I hope that after so many years in office he has the wisdom to steer the country in an increasingly democratic direction in this phase of its development," said Elmar Brok, chairman of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs. "But if he keeps doing everything he can to maintain his power, he will eventually lose the support of the Russian people."
Putin, who turns 60 this year, also seems to be thinking about how much time he has left. "There comes a moment in a person's life when he no longer needs to hold on to certain things. He then can and must think about the fate of his country," he said before the start of his third presidential term. That moment could be now.
Author: Roman Goncharenko / ew
Editor: Simon Bone