Russians support their president because he did something rare for a politician: He delivered. Russia today is a resurgent economic power, with the tenth-largest economy in the world. Eighty percent of the economy is privatized, according to the Accounts Chamber of the Russian Federation. And the country is flush with oil revenue, having overtaken Saudi Arabia as the world's leading producer of oil.
The ruble is convertible again, a move designed to increase confidence among foreign investors, and it is once again the currency of choice. The Putin administration has instituted a flat, transparent income tax of 13 percent that Russians are actually paying -- in stark contrast to the situation of mutual suspicion a decade ago. Public debt is low and the stock market has taken off. Per-capita income and consumer spending are up sharply. And the middle class is growing rapidly while crime is down.
Moscow was once an isolated bubble of prosperity, but as I saw on a recent business trip to 10 Russian cities, growth is now a national phenomenon. Every skyline bristled with cranes.
If this is all true, however, what's the point of persecuting the opposition? There is overwhelming evidence that this is going on, and it's hard to believe that Putin isn't ultimately behind it. But if he's really so popular, why risk looking like a paranoid despot?
One possibility: Russians cheer when Putin "gets tough" with e.g. Chechens; could it be that they see persecution of the Russian opposition in the same light? In other words, where Westerners see Putin trying to squelch democratic competition, maybe Russians see a strong leader teaching nay-sayers a lesson.
Can this be right? If not, what's really going on? Responses from Russians are especially welcome.