March 28, 2000 | Backgrounder on Russia
Putin's rise to power is significant beyond the fact that this is Russia's first at least nominally constitutional presidential succession since the fall of communism. His ascendancy has brought ideas, approaches to governance, and new faces to the Kremlin that likely will define the priorities and character of the Russian government for at least the next decade. Moreover, it has solidified the presence of post-communist political elites who support a strong state but not the restoration of the Soviet regime.
The Russian voters know little about Putin, who served previously as head of the Federal Security Service (which Russians call the FSB) and secretary of the Security Council, and as an intelligence officer for the Soviet KGB for 16 years, from 1975 to 1991. Nevertheless, his popularity runs high; about 50 percent of the voters favored him in pre-election polls, increasing expectations that he would win the elections in the first round. Voter turnout has been an important issue, since the election results are valid only if 50 percent of eligible voters come to the polls.1
Unfortunately, Putin's policies as Acting President do not bode well for Russian democracy. For example, he has promoted the indiscriminate use of force by the Russian military in Chechnya and raised the influence of the military and security services in Russian society. And despite repeated promises to fight corruption and business tycoons (known as oligarchs), he has allowed unprecedented violations of anti-monopoly legislation by Kremlin-connected business owners. Some of these businessmen recently acquired large aluminum interests that represent 60 percent of Russia's (and 20 percent of global) production capacity.
Because of his popularity, Putin may no longer feel compelled to bolster democratic reforms. The strengthening of the rule of law, the development of a transparent market economy, and progress toward establishing a genuine democracy seem less certain than they were under Boris Yeltsin. Thus, what Putin does after these elections--not what he says--will more clearly define Russia's domestic agenda and its international relations in the future.
While the 1998 election law and the letter of the 1993 Russian constitution have been observed in the presidential elections thus far, serious concerns about Putin's campaign were expressed in the West. Many observers within and outside Russia, for example, criticize Putin for using the war in Chechnya and control of the media to boost his popularity with the Russian voters. They also criticize his entourage for using outright slander, lies, negative political campaign tactics, and other "dirty tricks" to destroy his opponents.
Moreover, pro-Putin businessmen control crucial electronic and other media outlets. Yeltsin's inner circle of supporters, which boosted the selection of Putin as Prime Minister and Acting President, included Boris Berezovsky, a businessman who controls Russia's ubiquitous television station, Channel 1 (ORT) and who owns important newspapers, such as Kommersant and Novye Izvestiya. These outlets, and government-controlled Channel 2 (RTR), have been consistent in promoting both Putin's candidacy and the war in Chechnya. They have waged sustained and often vicious attacks against Putin's rivals, former Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov.
Putin's administration has implemented a much tighter policy on spin control than was prevalent under Yeltsin. According to some reports, at least 17 senior ex-KGB officials have been promoted to senior Kremlin positions by Putin. Some of these officials conducted political repression under the Soviet regime.2 They have replaced most of the reformers who came to power with Yeltsin and served in his administration.
Putin's cabinet nominations as Acting President also raise concerns. His nominee for First Deputy Prime Minister (the top economic slot), Mikhail Kasyanov, had worked for the Soviet central planning agency, GOSPLAN, and was a Ministry of Finance official in charge of debt negotiations.3 Kasyanov, who reportedly is close to the Sibneft oil company, forced through an agreement to pay Western investors in the Russian government's short-term bonds (known as GKOs) a mere three cents on the dollar. He has no prior experience in macroeconomic reform.
By comparison, Putin's only progressive steps thus far have been in nominating German Gref, a pro-market economic policy expert, to draft his economic program and in promoting the market-oriented Alexei Kudrin to the position of First Deputy Finance Minister. However, Gref's economic package came under a strong attack even before it was published. For example, Professor Evgeny Yasin, the leading Russian economic expert and the former Minister of Economy, has expressed strong doubts that it will be implemented.4
Putin's parliamentary deal with communists on the nomination of the Duma speaker and the division of parliamentary committees would have been inconceivable under Yeltsin, who publicly expressed disdain for communists. However, Putin's alliance with the communists may have been opportunistic. Moscow-based observers have said that Putin's goal was to deny his chief rival for the presidency, Evgeny Primakov, the opportunity to create a coalition with the communists and become speaker of the Duma.5 As the result of the Duma deal, Russians apparently perceived that the communists had lost their zeal. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov's popularity has declined steadily from 30 percent to about 15 percent since the deal was announced.
|Putin's Past: Spy, Reformer, Enforcer
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born on October 7, 1952, to a working-class family with connections to the secret police in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg (the imperial capital of the Romanov dynasty). An overachiever, Putin excelled in his studies, particularly German, wrestling, biology, and the humanities. Fascinated with espionage, he volunteered his services to the KGB but was rejected. Upon graduation, he was accepted to the Leningrad State University Law School. In 1974 he became a Leningrad city judo champion, and in 1975 he was recruited to join a Leningrad KGB counterintelligence department.
Later, he was transferred to a political intelligence unit, and in 1985 he was sent to Dresden, in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where he apparently coordinated Soviet espionage operations with STASI, the notorious East German secret police. The STASI decorated Lieutenant-Colonel Putin with a minor medal before he returned to Leningrad in 1990. There, amidst the chaos and agony that characterized the death throes of the Soviet Union, he was appointed Deputy Rector of the Leningrad State University for international affairs, a dead-end appointment for a mid-ranking KGB officer.
Putin's friends in Leningrad recommended him as an assistant to former Leningrad University law professor and then Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, a rising star in democratic politics. An efficient executive, Putin became Sobchak's chief of staff, then Deputy Mayor. Sobchak reportedly relied heavily on Putin for day-to-day management of St. Petersburg's affairs, especially in the area of international investments by companies such as Coca-Cola and Dresdner Bank. Putin played a key role in rehabilitating St. Petersburg's decrepit infrastructure and privatizing numerous assets worth billions of dollars.1
St. Petersburg, however, was also one of the most corrupt cities in Russia and the site of many murders of city officials and businessmen. The most tragic was the November 1998 contract killing of Galina Starovoitova, a Duma member, a leader in the democratic movement, and an anti-corruption crusader. Her murderers are still at large.
Putin rose through the ranks of the Kremlin bureaucracy, first occupying the position of deputy to the powerful Pavel Borodin, head of the Kremlin business empire, in 1996. He specialized in multimillion-dollar international contracts and transactions and supervised many state holdings abroad. Later, he became deputy chief of administration and head of the control department responsible for executing presidential decisions. This position offered Putin unique influence over federal and regional leaders who were tainted with corruption.
In 1998, Putin was promoted to chief of the secret police, the FSB, which was the successor to the KGB's Second Chief Directorate (internal security). He purged the FSB of pro-communist officers and promoted a number of former St. Petersburg associates. Yeltsin reportedly was impressed with his cold efficiency and entrusted him with the most sensitive missions. He was made Secretary of the Security Council in early 1999 and was instrumental in the firing of Prosecutor General Yurii Skuratov, who had authorized investigations into members of Yeltsin's inner circle for corrupt activities.
Throughout 1999, Boris Yeltsin sought a successor. On August 9, he fired then-Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin and promoted Putin to that post. In his nomination speech, Yeltsin "officially" named Putin his heir apparent.2
1. Michael Wines, "Putin Retains Soviet Discipline While Steering Toward Reform," The New York Times, February 20, 2000, in "The Johnson's Russia List," No. 4121, February 20, 2000.
2. Putin's reaction, as carried by the Russian media, was characteristically understated: "we are military people, we do as we are told."
Putin remained extremely popular during his term as Acting President, trying to be all things to all people. During a voter call-in session on a radio station, he told listeners that he shared their concerns about the threat of communism in Russia.6 Later, however, he initiated a Duma coalition with the communist faction to the detriment of the center and the center-right factions. He tried to stake out a centrist position by enunciating public support for a referendum on the introduction of private land ownership but then shied away from granting political support to the Union of Right Forces, which sought a referendum on the issue. He encouraged his surrogates to call him a statist (a gosudarstvennik or derzhavnik) as well as a liberal conservative (liberal'nii conservator).
Although Putin kept the details of his platform fairly quiet, on many occasions he communicated his belief in a strong state as a "traditional Russian value" while calling for an increase in Western investment. He explicitly rejected the Anglo-Saxon model of liberal governance, saying it was ill-suited for Russia.7 He talked about fighting corruption but allowed those accused of corruption by Russian ex-Prosecutor General Yurii Skuratov or wanted for interrogation by the Swiss authorities, such as his former boss Pavel Borodin, to walk free.
Yet Putin often states that a return to the Soviet past, whether economically or through any attempt to recreate the U.S.S.R. "in its former shape," is out of the question. He has promised not to introduce censorship, and he hails democracy. Putin frequently remarks that the only dictatorship he supports is the dictatorship of the law.
|Constitutional Changes Wanted by Putin
Putin has indicated that the Russian constitution should be changed to strengthen the president's powers. He feels that a four-year term is too short and suggests extending it to seven years, starting in 2004. He has suggested a referendum to confirm such a change. If this occurs, Putin conceivably could stay in power until 2011. By then, he will be 58. He might decide to further amend the constitution to allow a third presidential term, which would allow him to stay in power until 2018.
Putin also dislikes the fact that regional governors are elected rather than appointed, though he admits that there are ways to keep governors accountable to the central authority in Moscow without abolishing the elections. Political allies of Putin have floated the idea of nominating governors-general, or super-governors to supervise large regions of Russia.
However, both the length of the presidential term and the election of governors are part of the 1993 constitution. If Putin opens the Pandora's box of constitutional amendments, the governors and other opponents might retaliate with demands that the president's powers be restricted. For example, they could press for the abolition of one of the president's broadest powers-the right to fire the cabinet or dissolve the Duma.
It is more important to watch what Putin does than to listen to what he says. Putin's actions since becoming Acting President have caused increased concern among Moscow's democrats that he may be an authoritarian camouflaged as a liberal.
One of his spokesmen, while visiting Washington, recently said that the Duma will feature a "shifting coalition," in which the Unity Party will cooperate with both the communists and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalists on some legislative initiatives while working with the center-right on others. This spokesman also said that discipline, the scrupulous execution of presidential decisions, and a "tightening of screws" will take place, but without destroying democratic norms.8 Attraction of foreign investment was mentioned as a priority. Yet Putin has not yet provided the vital support that the right needs to conduct a referendum on private land ownership and other such important policies.
Putin has expanded his political base beyond his initial circle of governors, military generals, and security officials. It now includes the center-right, the nationalists, and some elements of the communist electorate. By doing so, he has attracted some of nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's supporters.9 He also has captured the support of the leaders of the center-right party known as the Union of Right Forces.
However, many in the anti-communist electorate, and especially the veterans of the dissident movement, remain deeply uncertain about Putin's motives, primarily because of his KGB credentials, the war in Chechnya, his efforts to expand the role of the military in society, and his penchant for rough rhetoric.
The image Putin projects is that of a rational politician--a statist guided by what he considers to be Russia's national interests and a supporter of order and discipline, but one who understands the need for Russia to lure foreign investment and develop market mechanisms. His rhetoric often matches his tough image.
Not an eloquent public speaker, Putin sometimes uses colloquial words that resonate with the public. For example, his description of the goal of the Chechen campaign--"whacking the bandits in the john [toilet]"--became a popular quote. Russians compare him to Andropov and Chilean General Augusto Pinochet, but his supporters choose instead General Charles De Gaulle, the democratically elected patriotic French general with an autocratic style. Putin, who did not seize power like Pinochet in a military coup, would be more like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Peru's Alberto Fujimori.
The broad support for Putin among Russia's regional leaders, as well as its military and business tycoons, demonstrates that the post-Soviet elite has found its leader. In a move some Russian political scientists compare to the consolidation of power following the 1789 French Revolution (a "Thermidor"), Putin is expected to curb down the free-for-all nature of post-communist politics and business practices, including rampant corruption, and uphold discipline, law, and order.
However, he is not expected to undo the main accomplishment of the post-communist era--the division of Soviet state property. Thus, his regime will not restore the Soviet system, but rather will consolidate and continue the Yeltsin model of "bureaucratic capitalism."11
What is unknown is how well Putin understands that heavy-handed state regulation and pervasive bureaucracy stifle democratic policies and economic freedom. It is also unclear whether Putin or his advisers understand that technological innovation, advanced telecommunications, and venture capital--the engines of economic growth in the early 21st century--thrive in open and free societies but not in police states.
Putin's heavy-handedness can be seen in at least one recent move. Russia has a state-run structure for supervising elections, the Federal Electoral Commission, with regional and district commissions functioning on the local level.12 Nevertheless, Putin recently placed the Interior Ministry, which supervises the uniformed police, in charge of the electoral process, putting Russia's evolution into a full-fledged democracy in jeopardy.
This is a man who has shown a complete disregard for human life, cynicism and hypocrisy, and a willingness to use war and the deaths of thousands of Russian soldiers and innocent civilians as a PR instrument in his election campaign.13
Other critics, mostly Soviet-era dissidents such as Andrey Sakharov's widow, Elena Bonner, called for a boycott of the elections by citing the lack of real alternatives.14 Their calls have not resonated with the people.
Putin's rise to power indicates that Moscow is willing to use its massive military might to establish central control and repel any threats to its rule. Since the beginning of the Chechen war, the military has played a more prominent role in Russian politics and society as a whole. For the first time since communist rule ended, military education for Russian boys in secondary schools has begun. Now, teenagers will be taught weekly to march and shoot Kalashnikov submachine guns and will spend five days at a military base to prepare them for military service.15
For the military, the war in Chechnya was an opportunity to rehabilitate its image following defeats in the Afghanistan war (1979-1989) and the first Chechen war (1994-1996). It is true that Chechnya had turned into an enclave of lawlessness, hostage-taking, and even instances of slavery, and that Russia had to address the security challenge that this posed. But for the Russian military, it was an opportunity to send a signal to Russia's neighbors, as well as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), that Russia would not bow to Western criticism of excessive use of force against innocent civilians.16 Finally, it was a signal to the Russian Federation's other ethnically based regions that separatism will be crushed with an iron fist.
Putin hailed the war as a rallying point that would revive territorial unity, national pride, and the military's morale. As a statist, he believes that Russia's armed forces play a central role in upholding Russia's power and international standing. According to Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) election observers and Russian reporters, military officers apparently instructed their large conscript body (close to 1 million people) to vote for Putin's Unity Party in the elections.17
As far as Russia's voters are concerned, the Russian military's heavy-handed approach in Chechnya was appropriate, despite the fact that Chechens are Russian citizens. Moscow made little distinction between rebels and non-combatants in Chechnya. All Chechens were demonized on Russian television and in the media as "animals," "terrorists," and Russia-haters. Incidences of Russian artillery firing on civilian targets and military units carrying out executions and rapes, torturing suspects, arresting civilians with no warrant, and creating obstacles to the evacuation of wounded Chechen civilian personnel, including children, were documented.18
As operations continue in Chechnya, the Russian military demonstrates that does not adhere to internationally accepted norms of warfare, especially regarding the treatment of civilians. Thousands of civilians, Russian soldiers, and Chechen fighters have been killed in the war, and an estimated 250,000 people are refugees. Nevertheless, the war remains popular in Russia and Putin continues to endorse it.
Putin's pursuit of a strong presidency already has endangered one of the most important achievements of the Yeltsin era--a vibrant media. Putin's deputy campaign chief has proclaimed that Putin has the right to control the media to achieve national accord and to "use all power at Mr. Putin's disposal" to punish critics.19 The war in Chechnya triggered unprecedented attacks by the government against the media. This development bodes poorly for freedom of speech and the future of the free press in Russia.
Throughout the war, Putin authorized stronger military controls over the media in the battle zone and appointed a wartime media czar, Yeltsin's former spokesman Sergey Yastrzhembsky, to control the flow of information about the war to the press. He authorized the creation of SORM, a government program to monitor e-mail and other electronic or Internet forms of communication. In mid-February 2000, the government openly acknowledged that all Russian Internet traffic is copied to the secret service's servers.20 The Russian government is also seeking to regulate Internet sites in the same way that it now controls the print media.
The recent disappearance (and reappearance) of Vladimir Babitsky, a Radio Liberty correspondent who was critical of Russia's military conduct in Chechnya, has heightened concerns about freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Radio Liberty is funded by the U.S. Congress. Babitsky, a Russian citizen, was apprehended by the Russian military in the Chechen war zone on January 15. He was subjected to interrogation by the military and civilian authorities, and held in the notorious Chernokozovo detention center.
Acting President Putin declared that he was supervising Babitsky's case personally. Babitsky was not formally charged with any crime; instead of being released, however, he was allegedly "exchanged" by the military for several Russian soldiers who had been captured by the Chechens21 --a story that Chechen commanders denied. Three weeks later, Babitsky surfaced in Daghestan. The Russian government rearrested him and said he would be prosecuted for possession of a forged passport and cooperation with the Chechens. He was released from custody only after repeated high-level pleas from the West and the personal intervention of Putin.22 The journalist is under criminal investigation and is not allowed to leave Moscow.
During Babitsky's detention, journalists from both sides of the political spectrum in Russia issued joint statements denouncing the government and demanding the truth about his whereabouts. Leaders of the Russian Union of Journalists wrote that "the threat to freedom of speech in Russia has for the first time in the last several years transformed into its open and regular suppression."23
The Babitsky case is perceived "not as an isolated episode, but almost as a turning point in the struggle for a press that serves the society and not the authorities."24 The Glasnost Defense Foundation, a respectable organization that fosters the development of civil society in Russia, lists 88 instances of intimidation of journalists and writers by authorities since last December.
Putin's ascendancy to power in the Kremlin reflects yet another historic transformation in Russia. All rulers have imposed their indelible stamp on the country, and under each, life has been very different. Under Putin, the state will once again become stronger while certain civic freedoms may well become weaker. The probability of a large-scale crackdown is not very high, but it is possible that the government under Putin might take "pinpoint" actions against its opposition.
The task for Putin will be immense. Russia's foreign debt schedule (repayments will mushroom by 2007 to over half of the projected federal budget), its obsolete industrial base, and its aging population will force Moscow to seek massive Western investment and take steps to prevent capital flight, which annually reaches up to $24 billion. To succeed, the new President must make the Russian economy more attractive for foreign and domestic business. To do so, he must move fast on all fronts: pushing through legislation to allow land ownership, including the right to sell and mortgage agricultural land, cracking down on corruption, disciplining the bureaucracy, and introducing a business-friendly tax code and new bankruptcy legislation.
President Bill Clinton has attempted to personalize relations with Putin, just as he did with Yeltsin, and has lavished praise on the presidential frontrunner. Paraphrasing Margaret Thatcher's assessment of Gorbachev, he has said that Putin is a man "the United States can do business with."25 Regarding the Chechen war, President Clinton stated recently that Putin is engaged in the "liberation" of Grozny, Chechnya's capital.26 Rather than join with the European leaders who have condemned the bloodshed in Chechnya, President Clinton has said that he sees the conflict as an internal Russian affair. He also has been intent on distinguishing the Russian military's atrocities in Chechnya from Belgrade's treatment of Kosovars.27
Yet international organizations, including the European Union, the United Nations, and the OSCE, have documented and denounced Russia's excessive use of military force against Chechen civilians. The Clinton Administration should not attempt to minimize the suffering in Chechnya just to secure good relations with Putin or favorable ratings from the Russian people.
Russia is going through an important political change in which the post-communist elite and the Russian voters are electing a new leader and a new administration for a new era. Many of the elites, who were given control of important properties during privatization, will seek to consolidate their political control of the next government. Because a democratic Russia is less likely to become a threat to its neighbors and the world, the safety and survival of Russian democracy should be of utmost importance to the United States.
Dr. Ariel Cohen is Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
6. "Acting President Putin Answers Questions in Komsomolskaya Pravda Phone-in," Komsomolskaya Pravda, February 11, pp. 3-5, carried by the Federal News Service, in "The Johnson's Russia List," No. 4106, February 14, 2000.
7. Vladimir Putin, "Rossiya na rubezhe tysiacheletiy" ("Russia on Crest of Millenia"), December 27, 1999, p. 5, at www.government.gov.ru/government/minister/artcle-vvp1.html.
17. From OSCE election observation mission, post-observation meeting, local observer teams' verbal reports, Slavyanskaya-Radisson Hotel, Moscow, December 22, 1999. The author served as OSCE December 1999 parliamentary election observer.
25. Jim Hoagland, "Fawning Over Putin," The Washington Post, February 24, 2000, p. A28. See also "Where Angels Fear to Tread," Jamestown Foundation Monitor, February 16, 2000, quoting CNN online interview as reported by Reuters and Associated Press, February 14-15, 2000, in "The Johnson's Russia List," No. 4113, February 16, 2000.
26. Hoagland, "Fawning Over Putin." In 1996, at a press conference in Moscow, Clinton compared the first Russian war in Chechnya to the American Civil War (and, by implication, Boris Yeltsin to Abraham Lincoln).