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Why Putin Wins

I should begin by saying that I find the current president of Russia and his policies extremely offensive. I believe that Vladimir Putin is the most sinister figure in contemporary Russian history. From the very beginning of his rule he has directed—and almost completed—a broad antidemocratic counterrevolution in Russia. He has annihilated many civil rights in the country, among them such crucial freedoms as freedom of information. He has significantly restricted freedom of association and assembly, as well as the right to stage peaceful marches, protests, and demonstrations.

Putin’s administration has consistently carried out a policy of smothering political opposition and has tried vigorously to illegally place independent, nonpolitical civil society activities under its control. I believe he has decimated the very concept of an independent judiciary. With his knowledge and agreement, and more likely by his direct instruction, dozens of my fellow citizens have had harsh, unjust, politically motivated prison sentences meted out to them. He therefore bears direct responsibility for the appearance of a new generation of political prisoners in Russia.

The Russian president is said to be the “guarantor of the constitution.” But the man pledged to guarantee civil rights and human freedoms in our country has committed many grave acts of malfeasance, grossly violating the spirit and the letter of the constitution to which he has sworn his loyalty three times. To give only one example, he replaced the federal structure of the country with a strict unitary model of governance, with power concentrated in the Kremlin and with regional governments effectively subordinated to it. Regardless of which model one believes is better for Russia, this is a clear case of the President trampling on constitutional principles. He is responsible for the mass murder of peaceful civilians in Chechnya; and in foreign policy he has revived the pernicious Soviet concepts of being “surrounded by enemies” and a “world plot against Russia.”

The attentive American reader is no doubt informed, if not in great depth or detail, about these and other current Russian political realities, which have often been described in the Western press, and I will not pursue them here. I will try instead to explain—as much to myself as to the reader—the secret of Vladimir Putin’s popularity. How are we to understand Putin’s electoral success in 2000, and again in 2004? This is not merely an academic question. In the West, but also in Russia—even from like-minded people—I often hear the following:

Well, yes, the Russian president is an unpleasant person. We can see the authoritarian, nearly totalitarian direction of his policies. But what can you do? He has won two elections with impressive results: 53 percent in 2000 and 71 percent in 2004. That must mean that his policies correspond to the hopes and aspirations of the people, and that he himself, like it or not, legitimately represents Russia. Or do you really think that both elections were so grossly falsified that the outcome was affected?

Americans in particular resort to this line of reasoning; it accords with their view of free, contested elections as the main criterion in determining whether a given country is a democracy. I do not think that Putin “really” lost the elections of 2000 and 2004. Rather, the Russian election laws have been so shamelessly distorted that they create an imitation of free elections without the slightest hint of transparent competition among political opponents. Putin would have won the campaigns of 2000 and 2004—though perhaps without such large, unseemly margins—even if they had been free of vote tampering and the illegal use of the government’s so-called “administrative resources,” and if the candidates had actually had equal access to the voters through television and the press.

But what did the majority of Russian citizens actually vote for in those two elections? Was it truly for Putin and his policies or for something else?

In answering this question, I should say that I do not know exactly what personal responsibility Vladimir Putin bears for the political policies carried out in his name. When I write “Putin,” I am referring primarily to the policies and the entire web of political concepts generated in the bowels of the KGB—now called the FSB. I am not talking about the former KGB lieutenant colonel named Vladimir Putin personally; he is a man I don’t know and have no desire to know.

I understand perfectly well, moreover, that Putin and Putinism were a product of the “wild Nineties,” that his policies, in many respects, continue and develop tendencies already apparent under Boris Yeltsin, tendencies that became more extreme toward the end of Yeltsin’s regime when Yeltsin himself—a sincere but extremely muddled and inconsistent politician, who understood only vaguely the transformations begun under his leadership—was losing control over events. But the question now is, why has Putinism prevailed over other possible paths of political evolution in Russia?

Our inquiry should not begin in August 1999, when President Yeltsin unexpectedly appointed a little-known officer of the secret services, who had briefly headed up the FSB, to the post of prime minister. Instead, we need to return to the events that shook Russia exactly eight years earlier. The shattering failure of the coup that took place in August 1991 was greeted with genuine popular rejoicing. Muscovites, supported by people throughout Russia, foiled an armed attempt by a number of Communist Party leaders to take power, thwart democracy, and halt the dismantling of the Soviet political system. The result was exactly the opposite of what the coup leaders wanted: the regime that controlled a third of the planet, that had appeared as eternal as the Egyptian pyramids, was relegated to the past—forever, as it seemed.

The very next day Boris Yeltsin, then president of the Russian Republic, confidently declared that Russia’s democratic future and prosperity were assured. Many people understood of course that democracy would not triumph immediately; nor would the standard of living soon rise to American levels. It was obvious that the collapse of a great state would be an extremely painful and difficult process. However, no one anticipated the enormous increase in inflation only a year later; nor that tanks under Yeltsin’s command would fire on the parliament two years later; nor that Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, would be reduced to blazing ruins by 1995.

We also didn’t anticipate the high level of corruption in Yeltsin’s government from top to bottom, or the merging of organized crime and business in both the state and private sectors. Nor did anyone anticipate the degree to which the government would engage in criminal behavior; nor the “delays” for months at a time in paying salaries and pensions. Nor so much else! We could not imagine that some six to eight years later the words “democracy,” “pluralism,” “multiparty system,” and “human rights” would be used as obscenities by Russians.

In August 1991, who could have foreseen that by December 31, 1999, a broken, prematurely decrepit Yeltsin would say farewell and ask his country’s forgiveness in his New Year’s address and that his office would soon be occupied by a product of the very secret services that Yeltsin and the other “victors” of August 21, 1991, saw as the symbol and the center of absolute evil? And that the entire country, except for a handful of intellectuals and democratic politicians, would applaud this turn of events?

According to the Russian constitution, if the president resigns, he is replaced by the prime minister. Only three months after Yeltsin’s resignation, Prime Minister Putin, acting president of Russia, who had not done anything of particular note other than provoke the second Chechen war, won the presidential election on the first ballot. He defeated not only the democrats, whose popularity was declining swiftly, but the main clown of the Russian political circus, the nationalist demagogue Vladimir Zhirinovsky. He also easily defeated the leader of the Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, who finished in second place. A short three years later, in December 2003, the “Putin Party,” known as “Unified Russia,” won key positions in the State Duma, from which the voters threw out both of the two democratic factions, the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko.

Russian and foreign analysts have several explanations for the extraordinary “Putin phenomenon.” The first is that Putin gave Russian citizens what they had been longing for after the continual catastrophes of the 1990s: a feeling of relative stability and relative security. There is some truth in this view. Salaries are almost always being paid on time. The economy has stopped declining and there are even signs of growth. Pensions and social welfare payments are increasing although they are still far from adequate to provide a decent life. The percentage of citizens living below the poverty line has declined. The armed resistance of Chechen separatists has been almost completely suppressed. There have not been any major terrorist attacks for some time.

But exactly how stable is the current situation? I am certain that the bloody suppression of Chechen separatism has created a slow-burning fuse in the Russian south, and that the bomb at the end of the fuse will eventually explode. Many economists claim that the present level of well-being results from the convergence of several conditions that cannot last long. Others say that our economic stability is really stagnation, that the apparently favorable social and economic situation is based exclusively on the export of oil and gas, and that Russia will eventually be thrust into the ranks of the third world. For the sake of argument, let’s say that my prognosis regarding the Caucasus is wrong, that economists are also wrong to predict a bleak future for Russia, and that the nation has the government to thank for the current sense of security and relative prosperity—although I don’t see what particular actions of Putin’s team have concretely achieved these results.

What is clear is that such achievements still fail to explain Putin’s electoral successes. If in March 2004 they could be used for campaign propaganda, in March 2000 Putin had not been in power long enough to prove himself as a successful leader. All he had to show for himself were five months as prime minister under Yeltsin, three months as acting president, and a renewed war in the Caucasus.

The war was truly popular among voters and undoubtedly had an enormous effect on the elections. The public easily accepted the official view that Chechens had carried out the barbaric bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow and Volgodonsk in 1999, especially since these events were preceded by the incursion into Dagestan by the Chechen leader Shamil Basaev and his band of “international warriors of Islam.” Putin seemed obviously a man of great energy. Breaking a century-long tradition, he had actually been given authority to make political decisions. He instantly won over the man in the street with his vindictive retaliation in Chechnya. Opponents of the renewal of the Chechen war could simply no longer be heard. Was this perhaps the moment when the triumphal birth of the people’s idol took place?

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