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Putin's De Gaulle moment

File Photo of Putin Gesturing At Podium
file photo
It may seem sometimes to the casual observer that Vladimir Putin does not have a very high regard for the opinion of outsiders. But in fact, the opposite is true.

When the prime minister outlined his vision for Russia to the Valdai Club at a plush restaurant outside Moscow on Friday evening, he was following an important tradition of his rule. While he may agree or disagree with his interlocutors at these dinner-inquisitions, there is plenty of evidence that Putin cares what the West thinks about Russia ­ just as he watches opinion poll results extremely carefully to check his popular mandate at home. The Valdai experts, in producing a pessimistic view of the country's future, clearly did not please Putin greatly. But it can be forgotten that Putin likes to keep dissenting voices around. Hence the tolerant attitude displayed toward liberal reformers such as Kremlin adviser Andrei Illarionov, who for several years advocated policies that would have put Putin at odds with his siloviki power base.

And Putin also continues to value the opinion of ex-Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who fell on his sword after being passed over for the prime minister's job.

Putin and Kudrin do not, it seems, fundamentally disagree about the need for change, but only the pace of change.

Political scientist Vyacheslav Nikonov told the Valdai Club that it was a mistake to view Putin as more liberal than 70 percent of his fellow Russians. The correct figure, Nikonov said, was 90 percent.

If that is true, Putin would consider implementing the Kudrin plan of austerity and budget cuts ­ but only if he thought the time was right, and it was politically survivable.

While many in the Russian elite have been privately wondering if it wasn't time for Putin to let someone else take over, Putin has taken a good look around at the alternatives and concluded that he's still the best man for the job.

Amid the global winds of recession, it's not clear how long Putin can maintain the "calm, evolutionary pace of change" he sees as essential to prevent the "degradation" of the Russian economy and society. But for now, he's holding the line. And like one of his political heroes, for Putin, "L'etat c'est moi."


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