The Russian leader is struggling to balance some of his country's most powerful social and historic forces.
A masked activist carries Russia's nationalist flag in Moscow / Reuters
Don't look now, but Vladimir Putin, the man who wants to reclaim the Russian presidency in March, seems to be losing touch with one of his key constituencies - nationalists.
This development has several important implications for Russia, as well as for Russia's neighbors in Eurasia. It may improve the chances that Russia can find a balancing point between republican political ideals and nationalism, thus encouraging the development of a genuinely democratic nation-state. It just as easily may stimulate attempts to change Russia's current state borders, something that could have unpredictable repercussions.
In the aftermath of the November 2011 parliamentary election, which caused unprecedented public protests, Putin's authoritarian political model has lost a lot of its luster. Rampant official corruption and a significant spike in ethnic tension, generated by the presence of labor migrants in Russian cities, have helped fueled a sense of alienation among a broad swath of the population.
Hoping to reinvigorate his base, Putin published a lengthy article January 23 in the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, headlined Russia: The National Question. The piece is, at its core, campaign propaganda designed to persuade voters, especially Russian nationalists, that Putin's brand of nationalism offers the best way forward for Russia. Boiled down, it offers an eclectic mix of dated tenets of what can be called imperial, or civilizational nationalism, as well as a promise to strictly regulate labor migration.