A dozen years of prosperity and stability have kept Russia's leader wildly popular. Now his whole world is about to collapse.
The world is changing. Russia is not. And aborigine Putin would like things to stay that way. Stability has been his No. 1 selling point ever since he came to power 12 years ago. Even prosperous Muscovites-people who don't much care for their president's brand of Soviet nostalgia, his macho nationalism, or his KGB-style crackdowns on dissent-mutter among themselves that for all his regime's flaws, its predictability is still preferable to the wild upheavals of the 1990s.
And who can blame them? Over the past century, Russians have seen their full share of excitable demagogues, from Bolsheviks to capitalist shock therapists, all of them promising big changes for the better, and most of them dismally failing to deliver. That reassuringly solid sense of permanence is why more than 60 percent of Russians say they still love Putin after all these years.
Unfortunately for the Russian tyrant, however, change is imminent-and in a form utterly beyond his control. Two words have already begun rocking Putin's world: shale gas. The new technology, which allows natural gas to be extracted cheaply and in previously untapped places, is about to upend not only global energy prices but also the geopolitical status quo-with Russia as the prime loser.
For more than a decade, rising oil and gas prices have kept Putin's Russia aloft. The entire unwieldy apparatus, from massive military spending to the magical thinking of Putin's low tax, high-spend policies, is based on petro-wealth.
And Russia's fountain of loot is beginning to dry up.
A decade ago, Putin counted then German Chancellor Schroeder among his closest friends and shared traditional Russian saunas with him (not to mention signing him up for a cushy job at Gazprom when Schroeder retired in 2005). But Schroeder's successor, Merkel, is not so shy about taking Putin to task for human-rights abuses.
Department of Monitoring