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Hiatt: Kremlin Anxiety

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Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post asks a reasonable question: if Putin is so popular, and if Russia’s power has been restored, then why does the Kremlin exhibit so many insecurities? Unfortunately, in the end, he is denied his answer…

Yet Putin and his minions do not radiate anything like self-confidence. At home, anyone with an independent perspective is treated as an enemy. Abroad, slights are suspected in every encounter, and every interaction is a competition that Russia must win. … The government long ago succeeded in destroying the country’s strongest private energy company. Its onetime owner is in a Siberian prison, its assets have been seized by the state at fire-sale prices. Yet the Kremlin still seeks to disbar the 53-year-old lawyer, Karina Moskalenko, who represented the owner — “on the remarkable grounds,” as The Post’s Peter Finn reported earlier this month, “that she has failed to adequately represent” that victim of state repression. And while standards of living rise and foreign investment flows in, Russia’s economic bullying of little neighbors only intensifies. Trade barriers against Moldova and Georgia have been joined by the closing of an oil pipeline to Lithuania, after that sovereign nation refused to sell Russia a refinery, and the blocking of commerce across a highway bridge to Estonia, after that sovereign nation relocated a Soviet-era memorial. … Putin and his aides rarely lose an opportunity to affirm that the president will leave office. But why should it even be a question, given that Russia’s constitution bars a leader from serving more than two consecutive terms? One answer lies in the erosion of the rule of law under Putin this decade. No one knows better than he that the tax police, prosecutors and every other arm of government can be wielded one way against the favored and another against those who have become inconvenient, so can Putin himself sanguinely give up power? The chief executive of a law-abiding company in a law-respecting country can retire peaceably to enjoy his pension, but you don’t hear of many Mafia dons who step down and move to Florida. Near the end of his presentation last week, I asked Shuvalov about this apparent contradiction: If Putin is so popular, and Russia so content, why does the Kremlin feel it must script the nightly news so tightly on national TV? Why the striking lack of confidence? Putin’s adviser said he could not reply on the record. His CSIS host encouraged him to reply off the record, so I cannot tell you what he said. But if his response would have, if reported, caused him difficulties back home, then the Kremlin feels even less secure than we suspect.