Sober analysts state unhesitatingly that, with an opposition like Russia has today, Putin as the leading candidate in the March presidential election has little to fear, and that any hopes for an "orange" or Arab-type revolution are sheer wishful thinking and simply nonsense.
The reason for this is clear and fundamental: Russia as a whole is solidly pro-Putin (Levada Center which, by the way, is funded in part by US, puts his current rating at 60 percent, and rising), just as Putin is forever pro-Russia. The Western-leaning intelligentsia, the "office plankton" and the "cultured bourgeoisie" that set the tone for the current anti-Putin protests represent just a sliver of Russian society. If truth be told, this "elite" is basically inimical to Russia's masses.
People have long memories, and the contrast between the state of affairs under Yeltsin and in Putin's time is too fresh and too glaring. Then, people used to wait for months for their wages, salaries and pensions. Putin put an end to all that - delay of payment of wages is now a criminal offense.
Under Yeltsin, Western-inspired economic reforms run by Western consultants resulted in a destruction of the economy worse than during World War II and in the August 1998 financial meltdown. Under Putin, the economy has risen from the ashes and achieved growth rates second only to China, surviving the 2008 world crisis with minimal losses.
Also, Gaidar's reforms under Yeltsin virtually wiped out the Soviet middle class. In the past decade it has been reborn and is now groping for political expression.
Putin also made the regional elites toe the line - he stopped all that nonsense about a Ural Republic, a Far Eastern Republic, an independent Tatarstan, etc. Russia's people still feel nostalgia for "Great Russia," the Soviet Union. Putin clearly has an empathy with this feeling. Hence the name he gave the party he put together - United Russia. The people may have doubts and suspicions about the party, but not about the idea, no sir.
OK, Putin is accused of autocratic tendencies, of being a strongman, and so on. The real question here is, would the Russian people wish to have a weak man, a laisser-faire gentleman as their national leader? Anyone who knows anything about Russians knows the answer to that. Putin himself has often rebuked his people for their paternalistic tendencies, and he knows what he is talking about.
Curiously, accusations of autocracy and such are freely and incessantly voiced in the media, on the internet and at rallies that no self-respecting autocrat would stand for a moment.
In short, whatever negative tsunami about Putin is flooding the media (and some of the stories might be true) one should admit these simple truths: never before in Russia's history has the country been so free, nor has such a large part of its population lived so well.
There is at least one big blot on "Putin's regime" in the eyes of both the people and the opposition: pervading corruption. Considering the vast size of the problem, all one can say here is - it's not a job for one man, however strong. The "tandem" does what it can, firing corrupt governors (more than a third of them in the last few years) and letting whistle-blowers like Aleksei Navalny blow their whistles unhindered. On the other hand, one can only imagine what howls would be raised in Russia and abroad if Putin were to adopt some Chinese-style or Stalinist methods of dealing with corruption. Politics are the art of the possible.
Earlier we spoke of Putin's empathy with the people. Nowhere is it more striking than in the Russians' attitude toward the West. It is a well-known fact that after the downfall of Communism the Russian people went through a period of high euphoria about rejoining the European family of nations, naively expecting to be welcomed as long lost brothers.
The West quickly disabused them of these sentimental notions. Seeing Russia as merely the loser in the Cold War, the West proceeded to treat it as a vanquished nation. Despite promises given to Gorbachev, NATO expanded eastwards, incorporating not just former Warsaw Pact members but also some Soviet republics.
Culturally, Russians experienced quite a shock, too. After all, Russia is a country with a thousand-year-long history, a former empire with a long and brilliant record of military conquests, a direct heir to Byzantium in terms of culture and religion, a mighty contributor to world's science, literature, music, and the arts; it has led the world in space exploration and presently the United States is relying on Russia to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. And here came a horde of advisers, consultants and businessmen, and proclaimed their intention to "civilize" Russia! Sure Russians felt as resentful as a bear with a sore head.
Putin naturally shared that resentment. Still, according to a view most widespread in Russia, Putin started his first term in the Kremlin with at least two major goals in mind: saving Russia from total collapse - which he did -- and making his country an integral part of the Western alliance, including joining NATO.
It is a fact that Putin's earliest offer for Russia to join NATO was haughtily rebuffed by the then NATO general secretary George Robertson. The same policy has continued to this day, though there has been continuous talk of Ukraine and Georgia "eventually" joining NATO - presumably because their leaders, Saakashvili and the "orange revolutionary" Yushchenko made hatred for Russia the mainstay of their national policies.
There have been other overtures by Putin to bring Russia into closer alliance with the West, as when he offered unstinting support for the USA and NATO in their assault on Afghanistan after 9/11. And what has been the response - further NATO expansion to the East and an ever tighter "missile-defense" in Europe, right in Russia's backyard.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that, had the US and the UK accepted and helped Putin's efforts, had they met him less than halfway even, the history of the first decade of the 21st century and after would be quite different. Things would be a lot more beneficent for Western security and economy.
Other European countries, those of Old Europe, were in fact ready to embrace Russia. However, the two major players unfortunately rebuffed Putin quite unceremoniously. That made him - and most Russians - very bitter. So if there has been a reversal to a Cold War atmosphere, the West should obviously share the blame, at least to some extent, for the current sad state of affairs.
Edward Lozansky is president of American University in Moscow and Professor of the Department of World Politics at the Moscow State University.