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The Putin Put-On

In August 1999, an unremarkable, previously unknown KGB lieutenant colonel named Vladimir Putin shot out of the shadows like an imp out of a snuffbox and landed in the center of the stage of Russian politics. His extraordinary ascent to the highest rung of state power took only six months, during which Yeltsin’s administration orchestrated the equally rapid consolidation of his position among the country’s power elite, both in and out of the State Duma.

Most surprising of all was his confirmation, in March 2000, not simply as Russia’s new president, but as a triumphant and popular president, no less popular, and perhaps more so, than Boris Yeltsin had been at the peak of his glory. Popularity is a prize not often bestowed on post-Soviet politicians; competition among Russian politicians over the last five or six years has amounted to trying to convince the electorate that one’s rival is even more repulsive—“I’m the lesser of two evils, so vote for me and not for him.”

The political show that brought Putin to power—he was the “dark horse” in Yeltsin’s circle—is familiar. Entangled in their own intrigues, up to their ears in corruption scandals, and scared to death, the entourage of Russia’s first president decided it needed an actor to play the part of a “strong man” capable of “establishing order in the country.” The actor wasn’t especially talented but, as it turned out, he was diligent and a quick study.

Whether or not the Kremlin’s “president makers” achieved their main goal—to ensure their own safety through the transition of power—is a quite different question. If these people were the least bit familiar with literature and folklore, they would know that when artificial creations come to life, they pose the greatest danger for those who made them. About a year ago, in the heat of an argument in the State Duma, I called Boris Berezovsky, who was then a supporter of Putin, a “puppeteer.” “Better a puppeteer than a puppet,” answered the quick-witted Berezovsky. Nowadays Berezovsky is financing the Russian human rights movement from abroad. It is out of the question for him to enter the territory of the Russian Federation.

As for the first steps taken by Putin, a necessary condition of the Russian political game was that the candidate project a reticent, enigmatic image. A large part of the electorate holds conservative or even reactionary views and was intended to see in Putin a man with the potential to restore old Soviet values, a bearer of the imperial idea, a proponent of the “strong state” in the traditional Russian understanding of this concept. If he was to please the public, the new president should be anti-Western, and it was to his advantage that he was a former employee of the KGB. In order to win the affection of these conservative voters, Vladimir Vladimirovich unleashed the second Chechen war, gave speeches about the necessity of reviving the military-industrial complex, dedicated a memorial plaque to the late Yury Andropov, toasted Stalin’s birthday with Zyuganov, declared he was proud of his service in the KGB, and swore allegiance to his Chekist past.

However, another part of the population, which is much smaller, but nonetheless important in our society, feared restoration of the Communist system more than anything. To reassure them Putin also declared that “we cannot return to the past”; he promised to carry out liberal economic reforms; he made an alliance with Anatoly Chubais and the “rightists” who advocate those reforms; and in a speech to employees of the Federal Security Service mentioned the Cheka’s responsibility for the political repression of the Soviet era and said that henceforth the special services should not allow any violations of the law.

Communists and nationalists noted the patriotic rhetoric of Putin’s pub-lic statements with satisfaction, and feared only that this rhetoric would be abandoned after the elections. The liberals recalled hopefully that at the beginning of the 1990s Putin had been a close associate of one of the legendary figures of the democratic movement, Anatoly Sobchak, the then mayor of St. Petersburg, and so they forgave Putin his nationalist pronouncements, writing them off as a necessary populist maneuver. Curiously, neither side was certain that it had read Putin correctly, and everyone waited impatiently for the March 2000 elections when, it was felt, the mask would be taken off.

And then the most interesting part began. It became apparent that Putin had no intention of taking off any mask and revealing his true face, whatever that was. After his election as president of Russia, Putin continued a double, if not a triple or quadruple, game.

He appointed the extreme “market-oriented” economist Andrei Illarionov as his adviser and included the economists German Gref and Alexei Kudrin in the government—a bow in the direction of the liberals. He brought army generals and his KGB colleagues into the Security Council and appointed them to high government positions to satisfy those favoring a strong hand. In his first presidential address to the Federal Assembly he spoke of the importance of freedom of speech. However, in this same address he talked of “journalists’ responsibility” and said that the mass media should not take an “anti-state position.” For anyone even vaguely familiar with contemporary Russian political language these words were a clear signal: the President intended to take control of the mass media.


In order to understand the current policies of the Putin administration, one must consider what it has actually done since coming to office. What actions can in fact be attributed to the President? First, it is absurd to attribute Russia’s relative financial stability and the slight economic growth of the last year or so to Putin. Ordinary common sense suggests that since stability and the beginning of growth correspond exactly to the new administration’s tenure, it follows indisputably that the foundation of Russia’s economic success was laid down before Putin came into office. One can argue whether to credit Primakov, Kirienko, or Chernomyrdin, or even Gaidar. But it is certain that Putin had little to do with it.

What is to the President’s credit is that he seems not to have taken any idiotic steps or signed any foolish decrees and resolutions that would impede the normal development of the economy. (In Russia it is always thus—the bosses rarely do much that is positive, but they can always do harm.) Putin, like Yeltsin, speaks about economic problems very little, quite unwillingly, and only in the most general terms. Even his talk of reviving the military-industrial complex is probably more a political move than an economic proposal. Some observers believe that Putin’s economic team is passive, slow, timid, and doesn’t fully recognize the dangers lying in wait in the event of a change in today’s favorable international economic situation—favorable above all in the demand abroad for oil and natural gas. They claim that most members of his team cannot (or perhaps do not want to) reduce Russia’s druglike dependence on oil exports and that in the near future this will lead to a new disaster. Perhaps they are right. The liberal economists I know and trust criticize the President and the government only for moving inconsistently and slowly, albeit in the right direction. They agree that serious tax reform is needed, that the government must cut down bureaucratic obstacles to business and investment, and they approve of steps to deregulate the economy.

I am afraid, however, that such faint praise is the only positive thing I can say about Russia’s second president. What notable actions can be attributed to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin? The most important of course has been the prosecution of the second Chechen war, which has proved every bit as criminal, bloody, and hopeless as the first, but is perhaps even more cynical in purpose. Leaving aside the Chechen war, however, there are only two. The first is the so-called “strengthening of vertical authority” or, to put it more simply, victory in the war with the governors of Russia’s eighty-nine regional governments. The second is the campaign by Putin to seize control of Media Most, the relatively independent, privately held communications conglomerate founded by Vladimir Gusinsky, which owned the influential television station NTV.

Everything else Putin has done is largely an expression of intention, though his intentions are in themselves fairly symptomatic. For example, he has sponsored a draft law on the Constitutional Assembly that, if enacted, would allow the executive branch to change the constitution virtually at whim. According to this draft, the Constitutional Assembly, which would have the right to make changes in the main articles of the constitution, would consist of the president, the full Federal Council, one hundred deputies of the State Duma, the judges of the Constitutional Court, the chairs of the Supreme and Higher Arbitration Courts, and one hundred “well-known” lawyers appointed by the president himself.

In other words, most of the four hundred members of the Constitutional Assembly would be people who have not been elected to any office. Most of them would have been appointed directly by the president or by bureaucrats nominated by either the president or the presidential administration. In addition, the draft law violates the separation of powers: sitting judges, who are sworn to uphold the law, would take part not only in the legislative process, but in changing the fundamental law of the land.

Another such example is the law on political parties, which has passed its final reading in the Duma. This law establishes strict rules for associations that want to register as a “political party.” One condition for doing so, for example, is that a party must have at least ten thousand members and branches in no fewer than forty-five of the country’s eighty-nine regions. This would preclude the emergence of regional parties and, accordingly, regional participation not only in federal but in regional and even municipal elections.

Given the current state of affairs, however, it is hard to view this outrageously antidemocratic law as a tangible blow to Russian democracy and a victory for Putin. At present political parties play almost no part in Russia’s political life. Potentially, however, the law could affect the foundations of social life; basic constitutional rights and basic mechanisms of democracy are under attack even before they have begun to work. The law on parties would exclude most members of Russian society from the political process. It would give the executive branch almost exclusive control over political activity not only for the present, but for the future.

Consider how the President has organized his two main political campaigns: first, reining in regional governments, and second, “lining up” the electronic mass media. The former was conducted under the slogan “Put a Stop to the Regional Barons!” And of course putting a stop to the regional barons is not a bad thing. The political bosses running regional governments are often corrupt and repressive. Under Yeltsin, a legalized feudalism of local baronies flourished. Am I, a human rights activist, going to intervene in favor of that feudal system? Hardly.

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