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The west gets Putin wrong

Mary Dejevsky
2 March 2005

Vladimir Putin is fast joining the long list of Russian leaders who have failed to meet the west’s inflated expectations. Across the United States and Europe, the establishment media paint lurid pictures of an ex-KGB man who never acquired the taste for a free market or free media, a new Czar in the making, a would-be dictator who delights in snapping off each new green shoot of democracy as it appears. Tony Blair has grown noticeably reticent of late about his friend, Vladimir. And when George W Bush left Washington for his recent trip to Europe, it was with Congressional calls to “get tough on Russia” ringing in his ears.

Nor did Bush ignore that advice. At each stop, he told his audience how disappointed he was in Russia, until the public message he actually delivered to Putin in Bratislava seemed positively mild. “Democracies”, he said at their joint press conference, “have certain things in common – a rule of law and protection of minorities and a free press and a viable political opposition... I was able to share my concerns about Russia’s commitment in fulfilling these universal principles.”

Also in openDemocracy: discussion of Ukraine’s “orange revolution”, crisis in the Caucasus, and repression in central Asia.

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Whether, as US officials insist, Bush was harsher in private, hardly matters. The reality is that the US president has publicly bought into the swelling western consensus about Putin and his dictatorial ambitions. The conventional wisdom now is that the west needs to exert a lot more pressure on the Russian president if he is to become “one of us”.

The fact that one interpretation seems so obvious to most informed outsiders does not mean, however, that it is necessarily right. One lesson that should have been learned from the sorry tale of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction is that the same evidence can point to more than one conclusion.

Certainly, seen through a western lens, the charge-sheet seems damning. Putin is preventing the growth of a free market economy (the persecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the bankrupting of his Yukos oil company); manipulating the judicial system for political purposes (Yukos again). He is seeking to establish a personal dictatorship (by ending the direct election of regional governors and moving to a party list system for parliamentary elections); restricting the media (by closing non-state television stations, having critical editors sacked, blocking investigations into journalists’ murders). He is trying to re-establish the imperial “reach”, if not the actual borders, of the defunct Soviet Union (by clumsily interfering in the Ukrainian elections, and pro-Russian enclaves in Georgia and Moldova). He is exploiting the windfall from high oil prices to stave off needed economic and judicial reform, while further impoverishing the already poor by maliciously removing pensioners’ benefits. In short, he is rolling back freedom in Russia across the board.

But there is another, quite different, explanation that would fit the selfsame facts just as neatly. It may not be as obvious to “westerners”, or to the small number of “westernising” radicals in the Russian intelligentsia whose voices resound so much more loudly outside their country than inside its borders – but this does not mean that it should be dismissed out of hand. Looked at from what might be called a Moscow perspective, what Putin is doing can be seen as a logical, if not ideal, response to two highly constraining circumstances.

The fragility of power

The first is that, far from being an authoritarian, Putin actually wields very little real power, and what he does wield is patchy. It does not extend far into the vast expanses of provincial Russia. Many regions, far closer to Russia than Chechnya and the semi-lawless regions of the Caucasus, are effectively outside central control. The levers of power that worked after a fashion in Soviet times have never been re-established and they have yet to grow from the ground up.

Many of Putin’s actions can be explained if he is seen not as all-powerful, but as a weak leader desperately casting around for ways of bringing some order to the wayward land he is supposed to be governing. National television is one area where the levers of central power mostly work. But his pursuit of the oligarchs has stopped at Yukos. The Beslan siege and a spate of lesser attacks in the north Caucasus region showed the extent of anarchy in the borderlands. Putin sees appointed regional governors, confirmed by regional legislatures, not as a means of enforcing Moscow’s diktat – those days are gone – but as a last hope of keeping Russia administratively together.

As for Ukraine, with US groups funding NGOs in favour of Viktor Yushchenko all over the country before the election of November-December 2004, Putin would have looked derelict in his duty as Russian leader had he not made an effort to influence events in his country’s own backyard. But the fact is that he failed. Russia has accepted Yushchenko’s election, and the Russian foreign minister is now telling anyone who will listen that Russia expects former Soviet republics to go their own way.

The second circumstance that constrains Putin is pressure from conservative interests. A common western assumption is that if only Putin would embrace reform more enthusiastically, it would happen at once. The truth is that he could find himself out of a job. The pro-western reform constituency in today’s Russia is negligible. The real opposition to Putin comes from the loose alliance of conservatives – communists and nationalists – who oppose further reform and who make up the only opposition to Putin’s ill-defined United Russia party not only in the Duma (parliament), but on the streets.

The inconvenient fact (for the west) is that the preponderance of Russian voters is probably more averse to reform than Putin. In this respect, the pensioners’ protests in the first weeks of 2005 should have been instructive. For while it is heartening to see street protests in Russia once again, after more than a decade of abject grassroots passivity, the cause itself is in no way progressive. The pensioners want a return to communist-era benefits in kind that Putin – backed by the Duma – had replaced with cash payments.

This was an overdue reformist measure passed, with some difficulty, by a conservative parliament. It was undoubtedly botched – the cash compensation was too low and in many cases had not been paid on time – but the strength of opposition shows where at least some power in Russia lies, power that is potentially dangerous to Putin.

The Russian president’s predicament is that while he might appear all-powerful, his power remains largely on paper. All his talk of strengthening “vertical power” – so deplored by the west as evidence of dictatorial ambition – is no more than a search for some managerial lever that will work. To understand this is not to condone what has been done during Putin’s five years in the Kremlin: the destruction of Yukos, the restrictions on the media, the political use of the judiciary; the excesses committed by Russian troops in Chechnya. But well-meaning outsiders will only be able to exert a positive influence on Russia’s development if they appreciate that such actions reflect Kremlin weakness, not strength.

By constantly demanding further and faster reform, the west risks driving Putin into a corner where he will appear as weak as he actually is. The realistic help Putin needs is in establishing security along borders that are currently porous and encouraging the evolution of real local, as well as national, democracy.

A lesson from history

Putin’s situation is in many respects reminiscent of that of Mikhail Gorbachev as he tried, in vain, to steer the Soviet Union in its death-throes. He tried all possible levers, political and economic, though few were still working; and he was blamed in the west, just as Putin is blamed today, for dictatorial tendencies. Like Putin, too, his most lethal opposition came not from the reformists but from hardliners – something most of his western friends failed to realise until it was too late.

The west was fortunate that the Soviet collapse was peaceful and that it was Boris Yeltsin and supporters of democracy, not the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky or the 1991 coup-plotters, who assumed power in Russia. It is just conceivable, too, that if Putin were replaced, the eventual outcome for Russia would be as positive as it was then, and today’s stuttering reforms would take off. Too much, though, is different. There is no popular reformer, no Yeltsin, waiting in the wings, only the yes-men of United Russia and the conservatives in the Duma, red and brown.

Maybe the 2008 presidential elections will throw up a Russian Yushchenko – or protests that would bring one to power. For now, though, Russians have probably had about as much reform as they can digest. Only a tiny minority is clamouring for more. This is why, before writing off Putin as the latest disappointment to come out of Russia, his western detractors need to consider whether anyone else could meet their expectations any better.

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