Vladimir Putin is meant to stand for stability, and he used his inaugural address to pledge to strengthen democracy. In fact, his presidency represents a threat to both.

In the lead-up to his inauguration for a third term as Russia’s President, riot police raided cafes, and grabbed people off the streets — even merely for sporting white ribbons, which symbolize opposition to Putin’s autocratic rule. Two prominent opposition leaders, Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, were jailed for disobeying police.

A state that sets upon its opponents, deploys riot police and armored vehicles to clear peaceful protesters, and detains its critics, is by its nature unstable and undemocratic.

Putin, then, would seem to pose a risk to the very things he claims to want and Russia most needs.

It need not be this way. Putin is often characterized as a KGB thug, but he was not always seen as such. When as a new president he strode into a Paul McCartney concert in the Kremlin, there were great hopes for Putin. In his first term, as Russia was emerging from the chaos of the immediate post-Soviet (and post-Yeltsin) era, he was viewed as a stabilizing influence, and by some even as a reformer. His governments have included liberals, but these hopes gradually faded, both because of his policies and because of his decision to flout the spirit of Russia’s constitutional term limit by arranging to become prime minister after his first two presidential terms.

But Putin could reclaim his reputation were he to use his third term to pursue a more open Russia and a bigger role for his country.

There is always a place for hope. But this would require a new Putin to emerge.

— The Globe and Mail,

Toronto, May 13

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