"Here we go again!" This was the look that Russia's President Vladimir Putin wore last weekend, as he appeared at a string of press conferences with his guests from other G-8 countries at their annual summit.
The phrase, never vocalised by Putin, refers to the mini-lectures that the visiting leaders gave on the need for Russia to respect human rights, democratise its politics, and liberalise its economy.
In most cases, it was obvious that the mini-lectures were intended for audiences back home, especially in the United States and Britain, rather than for Putin and his government. US President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair wished to throw a sop to critics back home who claim that dealing with Russia under Putin is tantamount to supping with the devil.
To his credit, Putin managed to keep his cool. It must have not been easy to stand, with millions watching on television, and be chastised like a naughty little boy.
On one or two occasions, the Russian leader did retaliate with his own soundbites. At the press conference with Bush, he said he would not want for Russia the kind of democracy that the US-led coalition had brought to Iraq. Tony Blair got an even more caustic quip when Putin, responding to his guest's advice to fight corruption, referred to the current scandal in Britain concerning the sale of positions in the House of Lords by the governing Labour Party.
There is no doubt that, judged by the standards of the more mature democracies, the system over which Putin presides falls short on some accounts.
The Russian parliament and media are not allowed to wage the kind of war that their counterparts in the West pursue against their governments almost every day. Russian newspapers cannot buy or steal state secrets and publish them solely to get at whoever happens to be in government. Nor can opposition politicians use every dirty trick in the book to hound the government. Tax-dodgers in Russia end in jail rather than ride the surf of endless litigations that enrich the lawyers. It is also true that those suspected of anti-government sentiments are often shut out of business opportunities while those who curry favour with the Kremlin end up with plum contracts.
That, however, does not make Russia a dictatorship that needs to be lectured about democracy. Russia today is not an autocracy in the sense that it was under the Romanovs.
Putin, now in his second term as president, remains popular with almost all classes of Russians.
he reasons are not hard to fathom.
Russians remember the chaos that followed the fall of the Soviet Empire, with a mixture of shame and dread. For almost a decade, the country was a lawless land in which buccaneers masquerading as capitalists plundered the economy while bribing politicians, judges, and civil servants. Russia was a favourite destination for self-styled Western experts and consultants who turned the country into a laboratory for their crazy ideas in exchange for fat fees and illegal shares in the privatised companies.
Most Russians still remember how their lifelong savings vanished when, with four digits inflation, the rouble was no longer worth the paper it was printed. Russian policymakers also remember the days when the state hovered on the edge of bankruptcy while Western powers failed to fulfil promises of help.
It was not economic collapse and political chaos alone that gave the Russians a glimpse of the abyss in the 1990s. The country was also gripped by unprecedented crime rates as gangsters, blackmailers, kidnappers, and contract killers operated in broad daylight. Add to all that the evil of Islamist terrorism and you would understand why most Russians wished to push the pendulum in the opposite direction.
Against that background, what Putin offered did not represent the ideal; it represented necessity.
Compared to a decade ago, Russia today is a better-ordered society.
Having experienced actual decline in the 1990s, the Russian economy has returned to annual growth averaging five to seven per cent since 2000. Inflation is down to manageable levels, and more and more Russians are beginning to feel that the money in their pockets does have some purchasing power. A sign of this came last month when Moscow decided to float the rouble. Having fallen by a staggering seven years in a decade, Russian life expectancy is beginning to rise, albeit at a lower rate than predicted. There are even signs that Russia's demographic decline, projected to spell its end as a nation this century, may be at an end as more and more couples decide to have babies.
By all accounts, Putin's presidency, judged by the goals it set itself, has been a success.
To be sure, part of the success is due to the trebling of oil and gas prices in the past few years. Today, Russia is the largest exporter of energy in the world and hopes to become as rich as any oil emirate. The fact that most Russians wanted a return to discipline, order and security, has also helped. Nevertheless, it would be unfair to deny Putin his share of the credit. His performance is all the more interesting because the turnaround in Russia has been achieved without filling the political prisons or reviving the gulags, let alone the physical elimination of opponents.
The Western democracies would do well to acknowledge Putin as a necessity rather than an anomaly. Under Putin, Russia has been passing through the same kind of "disciplined democracy" that other democracies experienced at different times in one form or another. All democracies need a period of strong central decision-making until the new middle classes, the backbone of the new system, are large enough and politically savvy enough to protect it.
What matters is that Putin has not questioned the basic values of democracy and the rule of law.
Despite their mini-lectures in Saint Petersburg, Western leaders, starting with President Bush, understand this, and, when all is said and done, regard Putin as a partner, if not a full-fledged ally. The fact that Russia under Putin was asked to host the G-8 summit for the first time, thus becoming a full member of the club of major powers, is a sure sign that the United States and its allies understand the need for restoring the dignity of the state in the world's largest country.
Russia should respond by lending its weight to efforts aimed at dealing with such problems as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, international terrorism, and the challenge posed to regional and global order by rogue states.
Last weekend at Saint Petersburg, there were signs that the Putin administration is unsure of how it should use Russia's regained power and prestige. One temptation in evidence was to use Russia's new status to play a new version of the classical power game, thus encouraging instability as a means of besting real or imagined rivals. Then there was a realisation that old power games could prove to be too dangerous even for a revived nation-state the size of Russia.
The real question is simple: Having revived Russia's power as a major player, what will Putin do with it?