Mary Dejevsky: Don't assume that Putin can't change

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The Independent Online

You might have the impression that only one president was inaugurated this week: François Hollande, France's first Socialist head of state since Mitterrand. In fact, there were two. Vladimir Putin swore the oath of office a third time. One reason why he received such short shrift abroad was the all-encompassing euro crisis. But there was also the assumption that Putin III will be no different from Putins I and II – part of the myth according to which nothing in Russia ever changes, or if it does, for the worse.

But Putin III is unlikely to be more of the same, for reasons that have less to do with the President than with changes in Russia that will increasingly be out of his control. The disapproval that met Putin's decision to stand again and the protests that followed legislative elections in December, showed a new generation and a new professional class starting to engage in mainstream politics. How the new leadership copes with this during regional elections this autumn will be one gauge of its willingness – or not – to change.

Even further beyond the Kremlin's control will be what happens in the economy. Russia emerged intact from the 2008 global financial crisis. Since then, unrest in the Middle East, the Arab Spring and fears about Iran combined to keep up oil and gas prices, to the great benefit of Russia's exchequer.

But this good fortune may be ending. Shale gas is bringing a potential gas glut worldwide and offering Poland, among others, the possibility of less dependence on its eastern neighbour. Even without it, though, Russia's dominance as a supplier is likely to decline, as its oil and gas become more expensive to drill. Which might explain why Putin, through Russian ambassadors around the world, is declaring that his notoriously proud and self-sufficient country is in urgent need of foreign investment and expertise. This is also why, presumably, after much dithering, it is joining the WTO.

So far, Russia's calls have been mostly drowned out by the euro crisis, by US election skirmishing, and by the belief abroad that Putin III will be more interested in grandstanding than in cooperation.

But less than a week into his third term is far too early to second-guess what he wants to do.

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