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The Two Faces of Vladimir Putin

Russia’s split personality – symbolized by its Tsarist coat of arms, a two-headed eagle – has been on open display recently. One minute, President Vladimir Putin’s regime is on a charm offensive, desiring a settlement to its six-decade-old territorial dispute with Japan over the Kurile Islands and reassuring investors following the conviction of oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The next moment Putin balks at removing Russia’s military garrison from Moldova’s secessionist Transdniester region while prosecutors talk ominously of putting more oligarchs in the dock.

Perhaps the greatest display of this political schizophrenia took place last month in Red Square, where a witch’s brew of Red “Victory” flags, tri-color “Imperial” flags, Stalin portraits, and Orthodox icons marched side by side during the 60th anniversary celebration marking WWII’s end. Putin took that occasion to repeat his political mantra – “Russia is developing it’s own brand of democracy” – while spurning requests from the Baltic countries that Russia come clean about its deal with Hitler to devour them on WWII’s eve.

This bizarre brew appears to have been concocted in an effort to reconcile the irreconcilable: the current yearning for democracy with Russia’s despotic past. But, like any muddle, it is succeeding only in confusing Russians about themselves and their country. Strangely, Putin seems as trapped by this muddle as everybody else.

At times, Putin truly sees himself as a “modernizer” seeking to root Russia in the West. At other times, like Stalin, he believes that Russia’s power requires a strong hand – what he calls his “dictatorship of law.” The problem, as Khodorkovsky’s conviction demonstrated, is that dictatorship usually seems to be trumping law.