Putin’s ‘sovereign democracy’ looks familiar

Vladimir Putin's Russia, in many ways, looks and feels like a new Soviet Union. The Russian president, who once praised democratic reform, now rules, some Russian experts say, like an old party chairman — crushing all opposition, cracking down on anti-government protests, even appointing mayors and regional governors.

Putin calls it “sovereign democracy.” Critics call it dictatorship.

"Today, if Putin says 'I want this' it will be done," says Vladimir Ryzhkov, a member of parliament.

And Putin wants no rivals — sending super-rich oilman Mikhail Khodorkovsky to jail on questionable charges.

Another opponent — billionaire Boris Berezovsky — fled to London, now in political exile.

"It's definitely [gone] way back to the Soviet Union," says Berezovsky. "Not in the sense of ideology, but in the sense of the organization of power."

Putin leveraged a booming economy, fueled by high oil prices, to build up that power, and used the media he controls to create a cult. Putin the sportsman, the fearless pilot, the global player.

"Mr. Putin, Mr. Putin, Mr. Putin — people are told that their only savior, the only guy that cares about them is Mr. Putin himself," says Yevgenia Albats, a journalist with The New Times.

With steely confidence he stunned Western officials last month in Munich. Attacking America with Cold War rhetoric, he claimed the U.S. wants to defeat the world.

Such policy can only lead to another arms race, he warned.

Putin's real message?

"Russia is back, so beware of us," says Sergei Strokan, a journalist with Kommersant. "Don't touch us. We are strong enough."

While the West cringes as Putin sounds and acts like a Soviet strongman, here at home, Russians love him. His approval ratings are soaring into the stratosphere. But Putin must go at the end of his second term next year. Unless he changes — or ignores — the Russian Constitution. Or rules from behind the scenes.

"America had better start getting used to dealing with somebody who understands power," says Francois Heisbourg of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Because it could be dealing with Putin's Russia for years to come.