Cultural Revolutions

A Strained Performance

Vladimir Putin’s strained performance at a June 25 Kremlin press conference—timed to precede his departure for a G-8 summit in Canada—has led many Russian observers to reassess the popular image of the Russian president as a “strong hand” who had whipped the oligarchs into line and restored order in the long-suffering “Land of the Firebird.”

Putin appeared relaxed and confident until he was asked a series of questions about the conspicuous public activity of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who has lately made a number of public appearances, voicing opinions that have often contradicted the Putin administration’s official line.  Most Kremlin watchers believe Yeltsin is reminding Putin to whom he owes his post—and that, as one observer put it, “there are other fish in the sea.”  The still-influential “family” or “Yeltsin clan”—the former president and the group of relatives, political operatives, gangsters, oligarchs, and media magnates who surround him—could always choose to back someone else in the 2004 presidential elections.  Thus, according to this theory, Putin—who has, from time to time, attempted to assert his independence from the family—was being warned.

At this point in the news conference, Putin stumbled.  He attempted to gloss over the apparent contradictions between the Kremlin’s...

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