In 1999, with Boris Yeltsin’s health failing and his need to produce a smooth succession the following year, Yeltsin made Vladimir Putin Russia’s prime minister and gave Putin an unprecedented free hand in making policy. From the beginning, Putin’s attitude toward his own stewardship of the Russian Federation was a grand bargain: Putin was to be unchallenged in the political sphere, and in return the Russian people would have security, stability, and non-political liberty.
To demonstrate this, Putin led a furious military effort to suppress Chechen separatism, earning briefly the nickname the “iron chancellor.” Putin biographer Richard Sakwa quotes Yeltsin’s explanation for Putin’s rising popularity: “Putin got rid of Russia’s fear. And Russia repaid him with profound gratitude.” Yet since December, Moscow has seen massive protests, and Russians were even galvanized by a hunger strike in the provinces. And this week, two studies indicate Russians’ gratitude toward Putin is broadly on the wane, and their desire for democratic institutions is rising. The reason is not because Russians are reneging on their half of the grand bargain. It’s because the grand bargain was always impossible.