Technically, Russia may be a democracy. It is, however, an extreme example of what political scientists call a defective democracy. It's like a car with a brand-new paint job but dire mechanical problems: It looks good and might even drive fine, but the headlights are broken and the back door doesn't close right, so the passengers just might fall out - especially if they criticize the driver.
Putin decides where that car is going, and he doesn't lend the keys to anyone who isn't fiercely loyal. He also has an understanding with the oligarchs who deliver the fuel, exploiting the country's rich resources for their own gain while most of the people get nothing.
This isn't just winner-take-all capitalism. In Russia, you don't take anything unless you're willing to play by the rules of the regime. Putin has created a system that serves him and those willing to support him.
A dark place
Worse, he has managed to legitimize himself to an extent. He won the presidential election in May, and although there were substantial allegations of manipulation, political observers agree that he would have prevailed regardless, at least in a second ballot.
But what kind of country is it in which another outcome never seemed conceivable? It is a country of 140 million in which Putin still dominates the media and intimidates the public, especially state employees. Remember the killing of journalist Anna Politikovskaya? Or Putin's public interference with the criminal trial of one of his most important critics, the entrepreneur Mikhail Khodorkovsky?
When the Cold War ended, Russians saw light, but only for a very short time. Their country has become a dark place again.
President Obama once seemed optimistic that Putin's predecessor (and successor), Dmitri Medvedev, would modernize and liberalize the country. Yet it has turned out that Medvedev was a mere placeholder and puppet for Putin, who had stepped back from the presidency after two terms to fulfill the formal requirements of the Russian constitution - though even for his four years out of the presidency, Putin held the office of prime minister.
Thanks to Obama's audacity of hope, the United States might have been too soft on Russia. Many European countries have been, too, though for less honorable reasons. While Putin does not care about human rights, he has stabilized the formerly chaotic country, making it a more reliable business partner. And Russian gas is an important energy source for Germany and other countries.
The lax European attitude toward Russia was never illustrated better than in 2004, when German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder infamously called Putin a "flawless democrat." Shortly after he left office the following year, Schroeder accepted a job with a company partly owned by Gazprom, the giant gas corporation controlled by the Russian government.
Schroeder's successor, Angela Merkel, who grew up in Soviet-controlled East Germany, is more skeptical about Russia. But she has not in fact changed much about German policy toward the country.
Before Putin became Russian president again this year, the world wondered what it would get: a "Putin II," who would do anything to forcibly maintain his imperial power for as long as possible? Or a "Putin 2.0," who would finally begin to grant more freedom to his people - even if only to head off protests against his corrupt system? Now we know it's the former, and that Putin prefers dictatorship even to cautious reform.
Of course, it wouldn't make sense for U.S. officials to regard Russia with the hostility of the old cold warriors. It's a multipolar and more complicated world now, and there are times when the United States wants Russia's cooperation, particularly on the U.N. Security Council. On the other hand, in contrast to its relationship with China, America is not financially dependent on Russia, so there is no great need to keep Putin happy.
A great octopus
That is why whoever is in the White House next year should make sure America and Europe begin to speak to Russia with a single voice that stresses their disapproval of the country's trajectory. Of course, that wouldn't make Putin change any time soon. But it would put some pressure on him and, more importantly, show those Russians fighting for democracy that they have the support of the free world.
A growing, educated middle class in Russia is aching for freedom. Thousands took to the streets of Moscow this year in mass protests against Putin's government. Yet so far, they are too weak. Like a great octopus, Putin's system controls virtually everything. Outsiders can only imagine how intimidating this is for those who would dare go against him.
Take the Pussy Riot case. Observers pointed out procedural and legal violations, like the judge's refusal to hear defense witnesses. The process was unfair; the verdict and sentence are hard to believe. The Russian journalist Sergey Dorenko noted bitterly on his blog: "One of the most compelling proofs of the absence of God must be the existence of the Moscow courts."
No, this is not just a story about a punk band with a funny name. It is a story about a nation, still one of the most important in the world, whose people are suffering from oppression. It is a story about millions of Russians who deserve government of the people, for the people, and by the people - and for whom America's example can still be powerful, especially in the country that was its greatest enemy for decades. It is a sad story, but a hopeful one all the same.
Tobias Peter is a political reporter and news editor at the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper in Cologne, Germany. He is visiting The Inquirer as part of the International Center for Journalists' Arthur F. Burns Fellowship Program. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.