Mary Dejevsky: Russia under Vladimir Putin will be different this time

What happens next will be determined by changes that will increasingly be out of the President's control


You might have the impression that only one president was inaugurated this week: France's first Socialist head of state since Mitterrand, who was drenched by torrential rain in his open-top car, then struck by lightning en route to Berlin. In fact, there were two. The day before, Vladimir Putin had strode through the gilded chambers of the Kremlin to accept the presidential seal from his predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev, and to swear the oath of office for a third time.

One reason why Russia's new president received such short shrift abroad was, of course, the all-encompassing euro crisis. But there was another explanation, too: the common assumption that Putin III will be no different from Putins I and II, and that his return to the Kremlin will take Russia back 10 years. Such a belief is part and parcel of the myth according to which nothing in Russia ever changes, and that if it does – cue sighs – it will be for the worse.

The announcement, hard on the heels of his inauguration, that Putin would not attend this weekend's G8 summit at Camp David was interpreted in just such a vein, as a "snub" to the host, President Obama, and to the already languishing "re-set" in US-Russian relations. Bad boy Putin was throwing an anti-Western tantrum – the word was – starting as he meant to go on. That Putin is, in fact, sending Medvedev (Russia's President until last week and now Prime Minister) to Camp David, that Medvedev is more clubbable than Putin at such gatherings, and that Obama has ducked out of this autumn's Asia-Pacific summit in Vladivostok – not unreasonably pleading election commitments – was widely ignored. As was the detail that Putin and Obama will both attend the coming G20 summit in Mexico, which says something about both men's priorities. It should also temper the automatic conclusion that Putin is striking an anti-Western pose.

But there are other reasons why Putin III is unlikely to replicate Putin's I and II, which have little to do with the returning President's presumed world view, and much to do with changes in Russia that will increasingly be out of his control.

The disapproval that met Putin's decision last autumn to stand for the presidency again, and the protests that followed legislative elections in December, showed a new generation and a new professional class engaging in mainstream politics. Tentatively, and perhaps too willing – by the standards of old-style oppositionists – to play by Kremlin-set rules, but nonetheless determined not to be ignored.

How the new leadership copes with this activism will be one gauge of its willingness – or not – to change. But the dispersal of street protests before and during the inauguration offers little clue. Regional elections in the autumn, where the new opposition may field candidates, and the reintroduction of elected governors, will be a better test of where Putin III is going.

Even further beyond the Kremlin's control than the growing number of educated Russians with no memory of Soviet times and no fear will be what happens in the world economy. In part thanks to competent management, the Russian economy emerged intact from the 2008 global crisis and with a respectable growth rate. Since then, continued unrest in the Middle East, the Arab Spring and fears about Iran's nuclear intentions combined to keep up oil and gas prices, to the great benefit of the Russian exchequer.

But this fortunate conjunction of circumstances, for Russia, may be ending. Gas prices in the US have plunged, with domestic production of shale gas, and there is the prospect of the US becoming a net energy exporter. Shale also offers Poland, and in time perhaps Ukraine, the possibility of less energy dependence on their eastern neighbour. Even without it, though, Russia's dominance of the European energy supply is likely to decline, along with reliably high prices.

Meanwhile, Russia's oil and gas are becoming more expensive to drill, and the EU has responded to successive Russia-Ukraine gas disputes by trying to limit the vulnerability of south-eastern Europe. High energy prices have long given Russia the luxury of not diversifying or really modernising, even as its Soviet-era infrastructure is crumbling. That could be about to change, fast.

Which may explain why Putin has set, as a central goal of his presidency, raising Russia from 120th to 20th in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business rankings. And also why Russian ambassadors, apparently on the direct orders of the Kremlin, have been taking to public platforms around the world to proclaim that their notoriously proud country recognises its urgent need for foreign expertise and is in the market for foreign investment – a reason, presumably, why it is, after much dithering, joining the WTO.

So far, Russia's calls have been largely drowned out by the euro crisis and US election skirmishing. Even if they come across loud and clear, however, they could still go unheeded because of the prevalent belief abroad that Putin III will be more interested in aggressive grandstanding than in cooperation. Less than a week into Putin's third term is far too early to second-guess where he wants to take Russia and what he will have to say.

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