OPINION
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Putin’s three divorces

Russian supremo feels betrayed by a middle class he sees as ungrateful for his prosperous reign

Three divorces at the same time are a lot, even for a KGB agent with a heart made of ice. But this is what has happened to Vladimir Putin. The first divorce, ending 30 years of marriage to Lyudmila Putina, might seem irrelevant in political terms, but many observers were struck by the manner in which it was announced: an off-the-cuff remark in the intermission of a ballet, in answer to an apparently chance, but surely prepared, question from a journalist as to why they had been seen together so little of late. Was there some political message in the coldness and extreme self-control shown in this proceeding? Or just another brushstroke added to the psychological portrait of this man, in whose company Lyudmila once said she always felt under observation and on trial, and who never once apologized for coming late for dinner?

Such coldness is present, too, in the way Putin has gone about his second divorce — with the urban middle classes — since he announced his decision to reassume the presidency in 2011. Instead of wondering why his popularity has plunged from its apogee of 78 percent in 2008, when he left the presidency, to its present 20 percent, Putin considers himself betrayed by the middle classes who, as he sees it, owe him the best run of prosperity in Russian history. In the Kremlin, we hear, disdain is expressed for the "cappuccino drinkers," in reference to the yuppies who swarm to the Starbucks of Moscow and St Petersburg, use 3G touch-screen tablets, consume Western brands and have euro accounts abroad. These ingrates not only failed to applaud the farce of alternation with Medvedev, but came out in the streets to protest against it.

His wife, the Russian middle classes and the West have for some time now ceased to love him

But Putin never forgives nor forgets. And the main threat to his power is not the fragmented opposition, which he already took care to weaken in previous mandates, but those who have always been near him, and who now, in private, are asking whether the time has come for an end to so much corruption, abuse of power and economic oligarchy. For all the manna of gas and oil, Russia has not modernized, and the economy is not growing enough to justify a system that is politically and economically corrupt. The exile, resignation, dismissal and even persecution of some of his allies, is showing the middle classes the unwelcome fact that Putin has gone from being an asset to a liability they cannot shake off.

Putin's third divorce is from the West. Perhaps the term is exaggerated, implying as it does that there was ever any love. But there was at least a fling. The recent G8 meeting dramatized US and EU unease with Russia, chiefly over Moscow's brutal indifference to the 90,000 dead in Syria, while a rewind to the past decade shows Bush and Putin exchanging compliments and close collaboration in Afghanistan and other scenarios of the "war on terror."

Putin's campaign against the Russian NGOs, forbidding them from receiving funds from abroad, and the media circus surrounding the arrest of the CIA agent Ryan Fogle in Moscow, make it clear that Putin considers that the middle-class mobilization against his regime is financed and orchestrated from abroad. Hence he feels no hesitation at all in aligning himself with the Iranian theocratic revolution and the Hezbollah militias in order to keep Assad in power in Damascus, to the West's embarrassment. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

Those who know Russia well say that the KGB used to teach you never to misjudge the person you have in front of you, since your life may depend on it. If Putin feels betrayed, he is no doubt right. His wife, the Russian middle classes and the West have for some time now ceased to love him. The beloved and celebrated leader is now only feared.

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