Head of state: rallying for Vladimir Putin, Moscow, May 6, 2012 (Sergei Karpukhin / Courtesy Reuters)
On the morning of May 7, Vladimir Putin glided through the empty streets of Moscow in a dark limousine, his motorcade making its way toward the Kremlin for his inauguration as Russia's president. There were no supporters lining the streets, no hecklers, or even curious passersby, for that matter; the police, fearful of protests, had virtually quarantined the city. The picture was of a man isolated in the soothing, if illusory, cradle of supreme power. As Putin took the oath to become president, an office he first occupied more than 12 years ago, he said, with a somber face, that serving Russia was "the meaning of my whole life."
During the Putin era, Russia has changed considerably. The country has doubled its GDP, paid off its foreign loans almost four years early, built up a one-party façade of democracy, deployed its energy resources as a means of coercive diplomacy, reasserted its regional influence, and fought a war against Georgia.
Yet Russia's antigovernment protests, which broke out last December, have challenged Putin like never before. For the first time, he could not claim that those who opposed him were a marginal, ineffectual force. And although he may have prevailed in the presidential election last March, the underlying factors behind the mass opposition to his rule -- namely, a rising middle class that increasingly demands political representation and respect -- will only grow.
With Putin again in command, understanding him
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