Letter From the Editors

Back in the early aughts, Vladimir Putin was an unfamiliar face to many. Yeltsin’s successor was sworn in for the first time on May 7, 2000. Russia was still reeling from conflicts in the North Caucasus and financial rollercoasters of the 1990s. “We have shown that Russia is becoming a truly modern, democratic state. The peaceful transfer of power is a key element of the political stability that you and I have dreamed of,” he said in his inaugural address.

Flash forward to May 7, 2024. Few people don’t know who Vladimir Putin is. In fact, according to Mikhail Shevchuk, he is the only constant of the past two decades. “Over the past 24 years, about 90% of the ceremony’s audience has changed. The speakers and deputies of both houses of parliament have changed, the prosecutor general has changed, ministers have changed, church leaders have changed. In fact, every figure has changed, except for one.” But wait, what about Dmitry Medvedev, you may ask? What about him, wonders economist Konstantin Sonin? Apparently, Medvedev was “a clown even when he held important positions, and now is a total mess.” But in Sonin’s hardly humble opinion, newly reappointed Premier Mikhail Mishustin “is even worse”: The biggest black marks on his record are the mishandling of the COVID crisis and growth-killing wartime economic measures.

But Mishustin’s (re)appointment was hardly a surprise move, say experts. In fact, it was pushed through the State Duma in the wee hours of the night with such haste that deputies “didn’t even have time to brush their teeth,” says Mikhail Vinogradov. The only bit of brouhaha surrounding the Duma hearing was the Communist Party faction’s decision to abstain from the vote – but United Russia faction leader Vasilyev sternly warned Gennady Zyuganov et al. “not to rock the boat,” as that would “delight Russia’s enemies.” Still, Mishustin was 57 RFCP votes short of a perfect score.

Yes, the world is an entirely different place today than it was in 2000. The war in Ukraine has exacerbated red lines to the point that they are white-hot today. As for Russia, “The country has found itself weighed down by unprecedented sanctions, and a genuine multiparty system is becoming more and more of a charade. Opponents of the government are scattered about in exile. The collective West is the enemy, but the Global South is still not a friend,” writes NG.

It would be an overreach to say that one person has been able to have such a significant effect on global events – not even the biggest butterfly can beat its wings quite that fast. But Putin’s repressive machine that has cleared the field of political opponents around the globe and muffled any dissent certainly functions like a well-oiled machine. In an interview with Novaya gazeta to mark World Press Freedom Day, French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné condemned reprisals against journalists in Russia and beyond. In fact, he says, today it is the “relationship with the facts which is under threat.” He also calls Russia’s propaganda work to distort and disrupt the information landscape in various European countries “an extremely serious hostile act.” Séjourné then took aim at the Kremlin propaganda machine’s pet narrative – that Europe is prejudiced against all Russians: “We also welcome many Russians to France who have chosen to escape from oppression, such as journalists, researchers, artists and students.”

Meanwhile, Beijing is still on a mission to seek compromise between Russia and the West, as well as resolve simmering trade disputes with Brussels. As Xi Jinping kicked off his European tour, European leaders synchronized their watches on everything from the Ukraine war to trade relations. Granted, Germany’s Scholz already visited Xi in mid-April – apparently without much to show for it. Experts are not optimistic that this visit will turn things around. “This is a systemic confrontation between the collective West and China,” said expert Yekaterina Zaklyazminskaya. Just as with Putin’s inauguration, the sense of déjà vu is overwhelming.