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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sure Hand Abroad, Troubles at Home

When President Vladimir Putin meets U.S. President George W. Bush in St. Petersburg on Saturday, more than a few questions will be asked about how Russia's steely leader opposed a hyperpower over the war in Iraq and came away unscathed.

The answer lies somewhere between Bush's evident personal regard for the Russian leader and Putin's skill in playing his hand on the world stage. Yet for all his stature abroad, Putin is looking increasingly vulnerable at home, facing growing fears that his dominance of the state machinery has peaked.

As parliamentary elections loom in December -- and the presidential vote follows next March -- the more important question may not be how Putin managed to go against the policy of Bush, but why he has been unable to face down the likes of Yevgeny Nazdratenko, the pugnacious former governor of the Primorye region.

Early in Putin's rule, Nazdratenko tested the new president's vow to rebuild a strong state and impose a "dictatorship of the law" over a society without rules. Back then, Nazdratenko headed a corrupt regional government, which, many critics say, preyed on the lucrative Pacific fishing industry. Putin fulminated, threatened Nazdratenko through aides with prosecution and, in 2001, removed him from office -- by appointing him fisheries minister.

Two years later, the State Fisheries Committee is mired in a corruption scandal and savaged for mismanagement. This month, Putin finally got rid of Nazdratenko -- by making him deputy secretary of his Security Council.

Acerbic and decisive in public, able to hold his own with world leaders of all stripes, Putin has proven mystifyingly unable to marshal his global stature and his personal popularity to dispense with the Kremlin's Nazdratenkos, much less carry out the painful social changes he says Russia still needs to make.

Three years into his rule, many experts have concluded that Putin's outward show of authority masks a careful balancing act among competing interests, from tycoons to political kingpins, who helped create his amazing success and benefit from it.

In most democracies, there is a word for that: politics. But Russia's masses remain all but oblivious to how politics is played and policies are made. Who makes Russia's key domestic and foreign-policy decisions today is opaque even to experts.

"This system is not stable," Masha Lipman, a Moscow political journalist, said in a recent interview. "Its secret, the pivot of its stability, is Putin's popularity and the passivity of the public. The rest is warring interests, no matter how much Putin has tried to strengthen it."

On its face, this is an odd time for doubts. Putin has won general acclaim for transforming Russia from skid row deadbeat to sober, even respected, nation-state. Public opinion polls routinely accord him the approval of seven in 10 Russians, and he seems well set for another four-year term.

This week's St. Petersburg festivities, ostensibly a glittering celebration of the city's 300th anniversary, are a barely disguised metaphor for Russia's re-emergence as a global force.

Moreover, Russia's economy has racked up five consecutive years of growth at a time of worldwide stagnation -- and Putin himself set a goal this month of doubling the country's gross domestic product within a decade.

Putin's language remains as tough as ever. Not two weeks ago, in his annual address to parliament, he recommitted himself to creating a "sustainable democracy where human, political and civil rights will be fully ensured," and suggested opening political party finances to public scrutiny and giving the parliament a greater say in forming the government.

The problem, analysts say, is with performance. After pushing a sweeping overhaul of the tax system and new legal codes through parliament in his first two years, Putin has been unable to press much more of his economic and social revolution through a government he supposedly dominates.

Lilia Shevtsova, a domestic political scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said in a recent interview: "I have an image of Putin sitting in the bunker constantly pressing buttons, and until recently, he didn't know that the bunker isn't connected to reality, that all the ties are cut."

If that seems a harsh judgment, the growing consensus among outside analysts is that Putin is hardly the all-powerful figure his poll ratings and global reputation would suggest.

"Most people would agree that on the basic institutions of democracy, Putin has weakened Russia, not strengthened it," said Michael McFaul, an analyst with the Hoover Institution who is one of the leading scholars on post-Soviet Russia.

Among other glaring problems, McFaul lists the unequal rights granted ethnic Chechens, frequent rigged elections, harassment of social activists, the effective end of independent television networks and a shift away from direct elections to parliament.

But like many others, McFaul is reluctant either to blame Putin for all that, or to declare the democratic experiment over. Rather, he said, the experiment is stalled, waiting for a breeze to carry it either forward or back.

"It's democracy by default, which is to say that they're not strong enough to have an autocracy," McFaul said in an interview. "It's like the vast majority of regimes which have gone into the transition from communist rule. We always thought there was a continuum, from autocracy to democracy. But it turns out that you can get halfway there and just stagnate. And that's where Russia is."