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With the new year, Russians rang in 20 years of Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the concert "Listen, Country, this is Leningrad Speaking" on Jan. 27, 2019, marking the 75th anniversary of the complete liberation of Leningrad from the Nazi siege. (Kremlin/Released)

Twenty years ago on New Year’s Eve, Lucia and Alexander Orlov had gathered a dozen or so family and friends around a table full of food, wine and vodka to ring in the year 2000 in their central Moscow apartment.

New Year’s Eve is Russia’s biggest holiday. It’s a family affair, when Russia’s version of Santa Claus, Grandfather Frost, puts gifts under a decorated tree and children stay up late as their parents toast the new year with Champagne.

The evening of Dec. 31, 1999, had been full of such traditions, including Lucia Orlov’s Olivier salad (a mixture of potatoes, carrots, onions, meat, pickles and mayonnaise — lots of mayonnaise) and the exchange of gifts. At midnight, the state channel aired its annual live shot of the clock on the Spasskaya Tower of the Kremlin ringing 12 times. As the tradition goes, any wish made between the first and last chime will be granted.

The Orlovs, who are approaching 50, and most of their guests that night had already lived through monumental change: the aftermath of World War II and then the Cold War; shortages and cramped living in a communal apartment; the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991; and almost a decade of painful economic reforms.

So the last tradition of the night, the annual presidential New Year’s address, came with a “very pleasant surprise,” Lucia Orlov said.

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Boris Yeltsin, in a pre-recorded speech filmed at his Kremlin desk, said he was tired: “I am leaving.” Russia’s first president announced he was resigning after two terms overseeing the country’s difficult transition from communism to a free-market economy

Orlov said she and her guests let out a unanimous “hurrah!” and clinked their Champagne glasses.

Yeltsin then announced he was appointing his little-known prime minister, Vladimir Putin, as his temporary replacement until the next presidential election, in March.

Putin has been in power ever since, as either president or prime minister. He has done so in large part by assuring Russians like the Orlovs that even as the economy has weakened in the last five years and the West has tried to isolate him for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, the prosperity and stability he has brought to the country continues to make up for all they endured doing the tumultuous 1990s.

“I wasn’t very familiar with Putin when Yeltsin said his name,” Orlov said. But she was happy to see Yeltsin go. He had embarrassed Russians with his humiliating drunken episodes in public and economic reforms that had left them all on their knees, she said.

“Stability is a lot for people like us after surviving so much,” she said.

During Putin’s first two terms, Russia’s economy grew, thanks to an increase in global oil and gas prices starting in 2004. This fueled a consumer boom and raised living standards. The Orlovs were able to remodel parts of their apartment and buy another one a few metro stops away for their son.

Putin used Russia’s economic success to propel his country back onto the world stage. Russia joined the G8 in 2006, and Putin hosted its annual meeting in his hometown of St. Petersburg. The country won bids to host the 2014 Winter Olympics and then the soccer World Cup in 2018.

At the same time, Putin tightened his grip on power at home via a gradual crackdown on civil society and media. He dominated state media newscasts, appearing shirtless on Siberian fishing trips and visiting factories to shake hands with obedient managers. Potential political opponents never had a chance because the state-controlled media rarely mentioned their names.

He seemed to be speaking directly to constituents like the Orlovs in 2005 when he called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

“After Yeltsin, Russians wanted to be respected again,” Orlov said. “There were a lot of things achieved during the Soviet Union.”

Putin maintained a high approval rating that ebbed and flowed over the years but never dropped below 64%. High oil prices kept him popular, and Russians were living better than they ever had.

Determined to restore Russia’s status as a great power, Putin began a campaign of expansionism abroad. He sent his military to Syria, where the American presence was on the decline. He talked about Russia’s sphere of influence, particularly in former Soviet republics like Ukraine. In 2014, after a mass street protest overthrew a Moscow-friendly government in Ukraine, Putin sent Russian soldiers into the Crimean Peninsula, which had been part of Ukraine since the 1950s. Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014.

Putin’s approval ratings shot up to 89% as patriotic fervor swept across the country. Led by the United States, the West imposed harsh economic sanctions on Russia and booted it out of the G8. The sanctions were ratcheted up after Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But Russians hailed Putin as the man who was making Russia a great power again.

“They can try to make it a political question, but Crimea is ours,” Orlov said. “Historically, it has always been ours.”

To a certain extent, Russia is back at the global negotiating table, said Nina Jankowicz, a fellow at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington. “Even though [Russia’s] economy is a fraction of the other countries that are there,” she said, leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron “are even floating inviting Russia back to the G7.” (The Group of 8 industrialized nations became the G7 after Russia left.)

Putin was reelected for his fourth term in March 2018 as global oil prices and the Western sanctions began to hit the domestic economy. Economists said Russia was too dependent on its oil and gas exports and that Putin had done little to diversify the economy.

“He built an economy that works just fine for him and his elites who can afford Western standards of living and access to modern healthcare,” said Vladimir Frolov, an independent foreign affairs analyst in Moscow. “For the rest of the country, it perpetuates stagnation and Latin American living standards with Third World healthcare.”

But Russia’s economy remains stable, albeit with slow growth, which has been resilient to external shocks and runs low on debt, Frolov said. “It is Putinomics.”

Economic growth is expected to slow to 1.7% by 2024, half what it was in 2013, according to the International Monetary Fund. Russians’ real incomes are on the decline, by some estimates as much as 10% in the last five years.

Alexander Orlov, 70, said he continued to work as a professor at Moscow State University despite being 10 years past the eligible age to retire. His work teaching physical mathematics is “essential for his soul,” his wife said. “It is simply who he is.”

She admitted there was no way they could survive on just their pensions. Inflation has eaten away at their incomes.

“If it’s hard for us in Moscow,” she said, “just imagine what it would be like in the provincial cities, where pensions are even lower.”

With a weakening economy in the background, discontent has begun spilling into the streets in the form of protests across Russia on political and environmental issues. Police crackdowns have resulted in jail sentences for dozens of demonstrators.

“Putin has created the impression that Russia matters more on the world stage, and part of it is true. Russia is not weak. But neither it is strong,” Frolov said. “It punches above its weight only because Putin does not face any internal constraints on his decision making and can do whatever he pleases. Unlike George Bush or Barack Obama, he can afford to do stupid things without the risk of being voted out of power.”

Orlov, who remains a strong supporter of Putin, is concerned about the societal inequalities. She’s angry about pervasive corruption in the country. But she thinks protests are not the way to go.

Putin will have four more years to address Orlov’s concerns before his fourth term comes to an end in 2024. The Russian Constitution limits presidents to two consecutive terms.

Speculation about what Putin will do next started swirling the moment after his reelection. Would he change the constitution to allow him to run again? Would he do as he did in 2008, when he became prime minister for two years, and then return to the presidency? Would he follow the example of Kazakhstan, where former President Nursultan Nazarbayev created an eternal role as father of the nation?

“I am sure there are people we don’t know about who are being groomed for this role behind the scenes,” Orlov said when asked who could replace Putin. Let them change the constitution if they have to or do what needs to be done, she said.

Just no more big upheavals, please, she said.

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© 2019 the Los Angeles Times