Note February 2016: I wrote this as a reply to a comment on something I’d written. My recollection now is that it was something along the lines that Putin is only interested in power.
Your remark deserves a much longer answer (and you’ve made me think I should write something). In essence you’re suggesting that Putin talks a better game than he plays. There is, I think, some truth in this but I believe that there is a good explanation. And the point is to try and explain things, not to judge them.
Go back to the situation of Russia when Putin was handed the keys. We all know about the economic/social picture – pretty desperate, even hopeless – but consider the security situation.
Khattab and his jihadists had attacked Dagestan and Russia itself – something had to be done about that (and with Armed Forces that had shown themselves to be pretty ineffective). Billionaires who had stolen their money thought they owned the place and were buying politicians. Corruption was wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling especially in the regional governments. Regional govts were doing whatever they wanted. The central govt had no money. NATO was expanding happily away and had just arrogated to itself the right to decide who has a country and who doesn’t. I believe that Putin actually thought (lots of references in his speeches to this) that Russia was in danger of disappearing – breaking up in a catastrophic collapse. Scary times if you’re a patriotic Russian.
So his problem is how to get there from here. His answer was to centralise things and take it slowly. Not an unreasonable plan, especially given what had happened in the 1990s. He had no tail, was generally unknown in Moscow and was dropped right into it. So he centralised control where he thought it could be trusted (witness all the jobs he dumped on Ivanov) and controlled and moved slowly and carefully (see his replacement of Defence Minister – forgotten his name just now – and the head of Gazprom as an illustration of his management style). Gradually he replaced people (pretty successfully as it turned out) and got things back on an even keel.
Then enter the “coloured revolutions” which, as time goes on, look to be more and more faked by outside interference. He and his circle seemed to have feared that a similar CR was being prepared for Russia and he tightened some more. His suspicions and fears are not lessened by still more NATOX, absurd and hostile reporting in the West and so forth. Still scary times.
If you’ve been reading my stuff, you will know that for 3-4 years I have been saying that he tightened too much and his successor would have to loosen things. I believe Putin’s over-centralisation, however much sense it may have seemed to make ten years ago (not an immense period of time BTW in what is necessarily a long-term plan) is now getting in the way of modernisation. And I believe we are seeing — I believe we are seeing — an easing of this today – but it’s the same plan with the same team carrying it out. (Don’t forget that the schedule was derailed at least a year by two events: the international financial crisis and the Ossetia war).
I cannot emphasis too much that people should read his Russia at the turn of the Millennium. It’s all laid out there: 4 tasks 1) turn the economy around 2) reverse the fissiparous tendencies 3) improve Russia’s standing in the world 4) institute a rule of law (or at least a rule of rules).
He did pretty well on the first 3 but the 4th still eludes him (as he admitted in a speech a while ago).
BTW his remark that only democracy is intransient is, IMO, extremely profound.
Another BTW: for the first time in Russian history since Peter there are two cooperating centres of power in Russia. That’s a rather interesting thing. Very few commentators have worked that one out.
As to political competition it’s true there isn’t much. Do you recall the story that he begged Yavlinskiy to cooperate with the other liberals so that they could get into the Duma? You can’t make bricks without straw and the political landscape is pretty barren. As to civil society, it is slowly appearing but it’s slow. But he’s doing something here too, that hasn’t been noticed: see Charles Heberle’s account http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2010/05/transforming-subjects-into-citizens-an-experiment-in-russia.html#more
Finally, here’s a little thought experiment. Let’s pretend that all the Moscow-based Western reporters had gone to St Petersburg to find out about this mysterious guy who had suddenly appeared at the top of the tree. And had found that he was the trusted deputy of Mayor Sobchak, one of the poster boys for the “new democratic Russia” and that Western businessmen had dealt with him many times and had high respect for him. Don’t you think that would have given a very different colour to the reporting over the next decade?
But, as I said, your question deserves a longer response, with support (too much written on Russia is simple assertion – that’s why I put in hyperlinks. I don’t make stuff up).