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Putin's Russia Is 'A Different Country Now'

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.

From the mayhem of the Time of Troubles in the early 17th century, to the disorder that followed the collapse of the Romanov dynasty in 1917, to the free-for-all that marked the period following the Soviet breakup in the 1990s, Russian history has been characterized by long periods of autocracy punctuated by short intervals of turmoil and chaos. The chaotic interludes, in which liberalism sometimes briefly thrived, are associated in many Russians' minds with ill-intentioned foreign intervention.

This experience, says Edward Keenan, a professor of Russian History at Harvard University, has led a majority of Russians to feel that the only alternative to a firm authoritarian order is complete anarchy. This, he says, explains why such a large percentage of Russians want Putin to remain in power even if that means sacrificing democracy and hard-won civil liberties.

"The avoidance of chaos is deep in that political system. And the expectation on which that is founded, I think, is that any price is worth paying to avoid chaos", Edward Keenan recently told RFE/RL. "People don't really want to leap into the unknown. They have been there. It's happened before, over and over again. The post-Gorbachev period, the Yeltsin period, is a period not only chaos, but of enormous anxiety about the future for all the people who lived through it."

Steven Pifer, a Russia expert formerly with the U.S. State Department and now a senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Putin could have broken the cycle and established a more democratic regime-if he so chose.

"I'm not sure it had to be this way. Putin could have taken a different course seven years ago and there could have been a more normal transition", Pifer told RFE/RL. "And he could have done quite a bit in terms of what he wanted to do in terms of political stabilization. I don't think he needed to walk as far back on democracy.

But instead, Putin and his inner circle of KGB veterans turned to a familiar model.

 

Andropov's Ghost

Putin and many key members of his inner circle-Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Patrushev, Federal Antinarcotics Service head Viktor Cherkesov, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov and Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Viktor Ivanov-all entered the KGB in the mid-1970s when Yury Andropov was at the spy agency's helm.

They were strongly influenced by his ideas. "They thought he was simply a genius, that he was a very strong person who, if he had lived, would have made the correct reforms", Kryshtanovskaya told RFE/RL.

Andropov led the KGB from 1967 until 1982, when he became Soviet leader. He wanted to modernize-and to a degree to liberalize-the Soviet economy and make it more competitive with the West. But Andropov was no political liberal. Unlike Mikhail Gorbachev, and later Boris Yeltsin, Andropov wanted to preserve the authoritarian Soviet political system and give the KGB a greater role in running it.

The model of authoritarian modernization he envisioned, Kryshtanovskaya says, resembles the one carried out by China's Communist leaders. "Andropov thought that the Communist Party had to keep power in its hands and to conduct an economic liberalization. This was the path China followed", Kryshtanovskaya told RFE/RL. "For people in the security services, China is the ideal model. They see this as the correct course. They think that Yeltsin went along the wrong path, as did Gorbachev."

Andropov died in 1984, less than 15 months after becoming Soviet leader, and was never able to implement his plan. But now, more than two decades after Andropov's death, the group of fresh-faced KGB rookies he once inspired are now poised to take Russia down that road not taken.

 

All Power To The Party

Few doubt that major changes await Russia in the coming months.

In a commentary published in "Izvestiya" on November 29, Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the pro-Kremlin Politika think tank, predicted that Putin will become leader of United Russia and State Duma speaker.