Two years ago, Russian tanks stopped on the outskirts of Tbilisi before slowly rolling back to the devastated Tskhinvali, but nobody in Russia appears interested in celebrating or even reflecting on that “victory,” which is still broadly approved by public opinion.
This lack of interest can largely be explained by the preoccupation on truly burning problems: Russia, for the second week, is struggling to contain hundreds of forest fires, which have claimed more than 50 lives.
The diminishing public respect for the military, which cannot provide security, goes hand in hand with the deepening alienation between society and the political class, which feels no responsibility for answering the needs of “commoners.” Putin is trying to bridge this gap by taking personal control over the execution of specific orders, even by installing special video-cameras on the sites of burned-out villages, but he cannot escape from the economic structure where his bureaucrats will steal funds earmarked for reconstruction. Medvedev is even less convincing in trying to imitate control over the emergency situation, which gradually stabilizes as the area of dry forests shrinks. His pretence at leadership results mostly in compromising the institution of the presidency, so Putin would find the supreme power much diminished, if he opts for reclaiming it in 2012, as most observers expect. The lack of any alternative remains the only solid political pillar of the regime, but its masters can hardly avoid wondering for whom the rynda tolls.