Putin's Russia Is 'A Different Country Now'

Just what does Vladimir Putin plan to do with his party’s new mandate? Consolidating executive authority and one-party rule both seem to be in the cards.

Vladimir Putin has a plan. So say the billboards that have that have sprung up like mushrooms across the country, proclaiming: "Putin's Plan Is Russia's Future." So says Koreiskiye LEDchiky, a rock band from Vladivostok, which recently released a song proclaiming: "Putin's Plan is top of the line. Isn't it hot?"

And so say the bureaucrats from the pro-Kremlin United Russia party who made the president's plan their electoral platform.

But just what this plan is, no one can say, even though Sunday's legislative elections were cast as a referendum on the Russian people's confidence in Putin and the direction he wants to take the country. Given United Russia's overwhelming victory, the Kremlin leader's new mandate could turn out to a blank check.

"The vote affirmed the main idea: that Vladimir Putin is a national leader, that the people support his course, and this course will continue", outgoing State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, who heads United Russia, said after returns showed the party winning a massive two-thirds majority in parliament. The results, combined with United Russia's dominance of regional legislatures, mean the party will have the ability to single-handedly change the constitution.

So what will Putin, who led the United Russia candidate list, do with his new power? In a nationally-televised speech broadcast just days before the vote, the president gave one of the clearest indications yet about his intentions. "The country is now entering a period of full renewal of supreme legislative and executive authority. And in this situation it is especially important for us to ensure continuity in its [political] course", Putin said.

Sunday's carefully choreographed victory for United Russia was the first step in a Kremlin blueprint to establish an even more authoritarian, centrally-controlled and vertically integrated regime-a new and enduring political system based on the Soviet principle of one-party rule.

This new regime will dispose of the troublesome issue of the unpredictable transitions of power once and for all by concentrating authority in the hands of a tight-knit party-based elite centered around Vladimir Putin. A cardinal change in this emerging system will most likely be the eventual elimination of direct presidential elections.

"They want a strong authoritarian state of the Soviet type without the Soviet idiocy", Olga Kryshtanovskaya, head of the Center for Elite Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Sociology, recently told RFE/RL. "The idiotic Soviet economy and the idiotic Soviet ideology were minuses. All the rest they want to bring back and preserve: a state system without a separation of powers."

This ambitious agenda explains why Putin and his inner circle were not content with just a clear majority for United Russia; they needed the appearance of a crushing mandate-and a two-thirds constitutional majority-for sweeping change.


The Evil 90s

In the weeks leading up to Sunday's vote, Putin repeatedly played the fear card-fear of a return of the lawless oligarchic rule that followed the Soviet collapse, fear of conniving foreigners who would steal Russia's riches and do the country harm, fear of the chaotic uncertainty that marked the entire decade of the 1990s.

Speaking to banner-waving United Russia activists on November 21, Putin called his opponents "scavenging jackals" seeking funds from "foreign embassies" to weaken and destabilize the motherland. And in his November 29 address to the nation, the president sternly warned of diabolical adversaries who "want to reshape and muddle plans for Russia's development, change the political course supported by our people, and return to the times of humiliation, dependence, and disintegration" that followed the fall of the Soviet Union.

The campaign against the 1990s was part of an effort to discredit-and lay the groundwork for disposing of-the country's existing political system.

In October, Russian media quoted State Duma Deputy Viktor Alksnis as saying the country's 1993 constitution "was accepted in an emergency situation, . . . is bad in itself, and does not fulfill its role." Likewise, in an interview published on the pro-Kremlin website kreml.org on November 7, Aleksandr Kazakov, founder of the Great Russia Center, predicted the destruction of the existing political order following the Duma elections.

"Already today it is clear that after the December elections, in which a substantial majority of Russian citizens will vote for Putin, the system of power in the country can be destroyed", Kazakov said. "This is simply because that system is highly unstable and, more importantly, does not have a place for the leader of the nation."

Even before the tsunami of agitprop against the current order, public opinion polls showed that Russians were already skeptical of the existing constitution. Public opinion polls published late last year found that only 20 percent of Russians think the 1993 constitution protects their rights and freedoms, while 33 percent think it plays no noticeable role. Similarly, a Public Opinion Foundation poll found that 50 percent of Russians believed the constitution should be revised, with changes such as eliminating presidential term limits or extending the president's term of office the most frequently mentioned improvements.


The Specter of Chaos

The move toward a more authoritarian regime after Moscow's tentative, tumultuous, and clumsy experiment with democracy in the 1990s fits into a well-established pattern in Russian history.