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For more than two decades, August has been the cruelest month for Russian leaders.The August 1998 debt default and ruble collapse laid waste to President Boris Yeltsin's free market reforms and resulted in the sacking of his prime minister, Sergei Kiriyenko.The following August, a sick and feeble Yeltsin announced that Vladimir Putin, the fourth prime minister in a year, would soon take over as president. Four years later, in August 2003, a Kremlin-inspired tax raid against Russia's leading oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, followed by the confiscation of his oil company, Yukos, demonstrated what Putin meant by the "dictatorship of law". That tactic has been successful, at least insofar as it created buzz about a "resurgent Russia".In his now customary New Year's address, a preening Putin celebrated 2013 by recalling how Russia had outplayed the United States and Western Europe. Putin's attempt to pacify the North Caucasus by installing the brutal Ramzan Kadyrov as the head of the Chechen Republic has brought little more than a fragile, de facto truce that has left Russia as vulnerable as ever when it comes to terrorism.In 1913, simmering imperial tensions in the Balkans seemed to have subsided, and yet 1914 marked the start of what would become World War I. My hope for 2014 is that Putin's hubris will not lead Russia down a similar road.
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