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Putin and His Enemies

Putin and His Enemies

Will Russia remain a democracy or will it slowly evolve intoauthoritarianism, or even dictatorship? This is the question mostoften asked in the West. But let us put forward an alternatequestion: Was Russia a democracy before Putin?

At best, Russia under Boris Yeltsin was a manipulativedemocracy; at worst, it was a pseudo-democracy, cloaking Yeltsin'spersonal rule and the free reign given to oligarchs and bigbankers. Indeed, by the end of his administration, only theoligarchs and liberal reformers closely connected to the Kremlinremained as Yeltsin's base of domestic support. Yeltsin-type"democracy" was applauded in the United States and Europe, but hadweak support among most Russians. Many in the West have chosen toignore how the electoral process under Yeltsin was repeatedlymanipulated in ways that negated the essence of democracy. Theelections of 1996 were a fiesta of manipulation, outwardfalsifications, use of dirty money and the servility of theso-called free media--in fact mainly controlled by oligarchs andfinancial groups. The majority of Russians believed that democracy"Yeltsin-style" meant freedom--to loot, commit crimes and becorrupt. The financial default of 1998 was a clear verdict onYeltsin's economic and social policies.

Most Russians believe that Yeltsin's pseudo-democracy hasbrought only turmoil, decay and corruption to Russia. And whileopinion polls indicate that most Russians value basic politicalfreedoms, they do not want to live under a faux-liberal regimedominated by big money. For the majority of Russians, what is mostimportant is for Russia to become an economically developed, richand powerful country.

Therefore, the only democracy Russia had known--Yeltsin'smanipulative pseudo-democracy--appeared as an obstacle to, ratherthan an instrument of, Russia's national revival. This is why mostRussians have not shed a tear for the defunct Yeltsin regime. Incontrast, Vladimir Putin has identified his main task as raisingthe living standards of the Russian people and doubling thecountry's GDP in a decade--goals enthusiastically endorsed by mostRussian citizens.

But how does Putin plan to bring this about? If we can describethe Yeltsin system as a pseudo-democracy, what is the Putin systemof rule and what are its guiding principles? In the most generalterms one can speak of an authoritarian model aimed at economicmodernization. But Putin is far from being a Russian version ofPinochet, who came to power through a bloody coup and remained adictatorial ruler for most of his time in power. No, Putin seems tobe inspired by a different type of leader--such as Peter the Greator Charles de Gaulle.

Certainly, there is a more pronounced penchant for liberaleconomic and social reforms in this system of rule than for thedevelopment of democratic institutions. Predictably, economicmodernization in Russia will precede the next round of politicaldemocratization, as it happened in a number of societies throughoutthe world (including those where a much stronger authoritarianmodel had been in place for many years, like South Korea).

What are the main features of Putin's authoritarian model? TheDuma and the Federation Council have been devoid of the influencethey had previously. Often the Duma nowadays looks like anextension of the executive branch. The upper chamber, composed ofappointed senators, appears to be another rubber stamp. Theseparation of powers in these conditions becomes more of a sloganrather than a reality.

The Duma and presidential elections of 2003-04 were marked byexcessive use of so-called "administrative resources", whereby thecenter influences the outcome of the vote by exercising pressure onthe regional governors and local mayors all over the country. They,in turn, used their own abilities (patronage, control of financialflows and the like) to "turn out the vote." However, it isimportant to note that Russian "electoral post-modernism", definedby use of administrative resources and control of the mass media,was first introduced by the Yeltsin team in 1996.

The mass media, especially leading TV channels, came understronger controls from the government. By summer 2004, some popularpolitical shows were closed down, and state-controlled channelsclearly took the line that their prime mission was to entertain theaudience rather than introduce it to the culture of politicalpluralism.

Russia's swing from the Yeltsin to the Putin system may becompared to yet another swing of the pendulum of Russian history,from "reform" to "restoration." In Boris Yeltsin's two terms, thependulum swung from the Left--the communist command-and-controlsystem--to the Right--marked by the breakdown of state regulationover the economy and the rule of oligarchs and right-wing liberals.The ultra-liberal Yegor Gaidar, hated by the majority of Russians,as the head of the government, and the robber-baron BorisBerezovsky as deputy head of the Security Council--those wereindeed telling signs of the Yeltsin epoch.

Under Putin the pendulum swung back--to stronger state controls(for instance, against tax evasion), to new limits on the politicalinfluence of big money and to a centralization of power in Moscow.However, its present position is very far from the place itoccupied in the communist epoch. The point at which the pendulumstopped can be described as moderate authoritarian rule politicallyand limited market liberalism economically. An important feature ofPutin's Russia is a consensus about private property as the basisof economic and social life. This was still an unresolved questionat the time of the 1996 elections, but since then it has beenaccepted by society at large. Another important development is thegradual weakening of the Communist Party, which today has no chancewhatsoever of coming back into power. Finally, the diversity ofpolitical opinions and platforms and the freedom to profess one'sviews show that Russia is generally developing along democraticlines rather than sinking back into Soviet times.

The definition of "managed pluralism" suggested by NikolasGvosdev in the Spring 2004 issue of The National Interest may beone way of describing the present Russian political system,although it refers only to the socio-political dimension of Putin'srule. If one is to describe it in more general terms, one can speakof soft authoritarianism or state-controlled democracy (stateprimacy over society coupled with democratic institutions,elections and basic democratic freedoms). At any rate, comparisonswith the Soviet Union are misleading. What we see today in Russiais a qualitatively new development and a deeply changed social andpolitical reality.

It is also interesting to note that the most vocal opposition toVladimir Putin comes mainly from those quarters that had benefitedthe most from the Yeltsin system. Indeed, the current politicalopposition is an odd combination of Communists and theirelectorate; members of the Yeltsin elite, who did not find theirplace in Putin's pyramid of power; part of the liberal reformmovement and various right-wing politicians and activists, who,like Anatoly Chubais, have been marginalized politically; and anumber of oligarchs, who are strongly opposed to Putin's methodsand want to bring down his administration. But the democraticmovement that was so strong from 1987-91 (and which most Westernershave in mind when they talk about supporting "democrats" in Russia)has largely dissipated. Such an opposition, where an oligarch likeBoris Berezovsky appears at the side of the head of the CommunistParty, Gennady Zyuganov, can hardly be considered democratic,although it brandishes the banner of democracy. The real goal ofits leaders is not to bring democracy to Russia but to usedemocracy as a slogan against Putin.

Putin said once that he considered himself the top manager ofRussia. Today his managerial position is so strong that it hasbecome a virtual monopoly on power. The pyramid Putin created seemsto be stable and strong. But, as in any pyramid, strategic actions,key decisions and main responsibility are not diffused amongautonomous managers, but concentrated in the hands of theleadership. And political monopoly, asserts the opposition, leadsto stagnation. Vladimir Putin has to prove this wrong.

The wind seems, however, to blow into Putin's wings. High pricesfor oil and gas on world markets serve as a powerful motor for theRussian economy which has grown at the impressive rate of 6-7percent a year. It also allows Russia to service its foreign debt.By the end of October, Russia's gold and foreign currency reserveshave--for the first time in the history of the new Russia--crossedthe $100 billion mark and now stand at $105 billion.

It is true that Putin still faces formidable challenges. He hasto make the state bureaucracy--and especially the securityservices--much more effective, and this has become an overridingtask after the terrorist attack on a school in Beslan. Theunresolved issue of Chechnya also poses a major challenge. UnlessPutin finds a way to crush armed separatism in Chechnya, terroristactivity will not stop and will subvert Putin's rule.

The key battle Putin has to fight is economic modernization.If Russia continues to maintain the present rate of economicdevelopment until 2008, in conditions of political stability,Putin's presidency will have been judged to be a success. In hisfirst term, the main source of his strength was his enormouspopularity. Putin was the opposite of Yeltsin--and this is whyRussians supported him. The last elections brought him an evengreater level of support. Putin's success depends on whether hepreserves this support throughout his second term. It will dependon three key factors: his capacity to assure economic growth, tolimit terrorist attacks and to preserve social stability whilepursuing liberal reforms. If he displays such a capacity, the"Right-Left" opposition composed of Communists and oligarchs willhardly be a danger to him. If he does not, then political andsocial stability, and therefore his presidency, may be shattered.In the event that Putin's strategy fails, Russia may either fallback into the worst kind of criminal oligarchic capitalism or facethe danger of political radicalization and a growing anti-Westernorientation.

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