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Is Vladimir Putin Losing His Grip?

In recent decades, as President Vladimir Putin has entrenched his authority, Russia has seemed to be moving backward socially and economically. But while the Kremlin knows that it must reverse this trajectory, genuine reform would be incompatible with the kleptocratic character of Putin’s regime.

MOSCOW – In 1984, just before Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascent to power, there was a sense in Moscow that the Soviet Union was petrified, and nothing could change. Then everything did change, exposing the extent of the transformation that had occurred beneath the surface. Today, a similar mood pervades Moscow, with President Vladimir Putin’s regime appearing stable, even unbreachable. But, as was the case back then, a closer look reveals a number of chinks in the armor.

In many ways, Russia has been moving backward in recent decades. In the 1990s, Russia was a freewheeling place, where virtually everything was allowed. Moscow had 20 daily newspapers, with views ranging from liberal to Stalinist. Today, Russian civil society is severely stifled, and to watch television in Moscow is to find 20 channels controlled by the Kremlin.

In 1991, Boris Yeltsin, in one of his first actions as President, broke up the old KGB into several agencies, cut its staff by half, and slashed its budget. Today, the KGB’s successor, the Federal Security Service (FSB), has seized complete control over Russia’s security apparatus, including by arresting high-level generals in other law-enforcement agencies. The result is a single security service that is more powerful than at any time since Stalin – and viewed as independent from the Kremlin.

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