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Overcoming the ‘Putin paradox’

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New Year’s Eve marked the 20th anniversary of the day that Vladimir Putin, then a relatively unknown former KGB agent who had become prime minister, was named Russia’s president. For a short period, Putin was thought — or hoped — to be a modernizer, ready to continue Russia’s reforms, both economic and political; he even worked with Washington in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. That moment quickly passed, however, and Putin became increasingly estranged from the West. That estrangement continues and is the defining feature of his rule.

Two decades in power have been marked by Putin’s ruthless pursuit of two related ambitions: consolidating power (like all his predecessors), and the use of that power to reclaim Russia’s rightful place on the world stage. Angela Stent Yergin, a leading scholar of Russia, succinctly explains that Putin aims “to relitigate the end of the Cold War and renegotiate its terms … to get the West to treat Russia as if it were the Soviet Union.”

That is a bold goal given his tools. Russia is a demographic mess, with a population forecast by the United Nations to decline 8 percent by 2020. Blame declining birth rates, grim mortality rates — male prison inmates in Russia have longer life expectancies than free men — and emigration.

Particularly alarming is the rising number of emigrants with advanced degrees — 22 percent in 2017 versus 17 percent in 2012; Russia’s brain drain is real. The economy underperforms, with growth in 2019 estimated at about 1.2 percent, the slowest among big emerging economies. Russia relies on energy exports and the government has consistently missed opportunities to diversify its........

© The Japan Times