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Johnson's Russia List
7 January 2000
[Note from David Johnson:
1. Itar-Tass: DEPUTY PREMIER DENIES RUSSIAN SPECIAL SERVICES PLANTED
TERRORIST BOMBS IN MOSCOW.
2. RFE/RL: Don Hill, Putin Is Not the Enigma Commentators Think.(Views of
RFE/RL Associate Director of Broadcasting Donald Jensen)
3. The Economist (UK) editorial: Putin the Great Unknown.
4. The Nation editorial: President Putin?
5. Samuel Berger on Russia.
6. Jerry Hough: Putin and Yeltsin.
7. Reuters: Peter Graff, Hopefuls line up to challenge Russia's Putin.
8. Washington Times: Paul Saunders, The real Vladimir Putin.
9. Salon.com: Putin's assault. Interview with Michael Urban, professor of
politics at the University of California at Santa Cruz.]
DEPUTY PREMIER DENIES RUSSIAN SPECIAL
SERVICES PLANTED TERRORIST BOMBS IN MOSCOW
Moscow, 6th January, ITAR-TASS correspondent Pavel Koryashkin: Russia's
plenipotentiary representative in Chechnya, Deputy Prime Minister Nikolay
Koshman, today denied media allegations that Russian special services had
been involved in the terrorist acts in Moscow. He was addressing a news
conference held at the Russian Information Centre.
Answering a question from journalists, he said: "It is scarcely imaginable
that anybody could give the order to blow up people sleeping in their beds in
Moscow." Nikolay Koshman recalled that in an interview the Chechen field
commander, Khattab, "admitted that the explosions in Moscow were his work".
Nikolay Koshman said a training school for saboteurs had recently been
discovered at Urus-Martan. Explosives which were identical to those used in
the acts of terrorism in Moscow, Volgodonsk and Buynaksk were found there.
Russia: Putin Is Not the Enigma Commentators Think
By Don Hill
Since Vladimir Putin stepped in as interim president of Russia after Boris
Yeltsin's unexpected resignation on December 31, commentators and government
analysts in the West have been asking: Who is this man? What kind of leader
will he be? RFE/RL Associate Director of Broadcasting Donald Jensen, Russia
expert and former U.S. diplomat, says they may be asking the wrong questions.
Prague, 6 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russia specialist Donald Jensen says many
commentators and analysts betray what he calls "appalling naivete" as they
seek to take the measure of Russia's acting President Vladimir Putin.
Jensen is associate director of broadcasting at Radio Free Europe/Radio
Liberty in Prague. Before joining the radios, he served as a U.S. Foreign
Service officer and was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
Jensen says Putin is neither an unknown nor a mystery. Putin is -- barring
unforeseen developments -- almost certain to be elected Russia's president in
elections set for March 26. He probably will set out skillfully on an
ambitious program to reform the Russian government and economy. And, Jensen
says, he will probably fail by Western standards.
Jensen says much commentary over the last week examines Putin through what
Jensen calls "a Western prism." Asking questions like these: Is he a
communist or a reformer, a dictator or a democrat, new Russian or old guard?
The Russian leader is all of those things, Jensen says. If you understand
Russian culture, the RFE/RL expert says, you will understand that they are
"The questions were immediately American [and other Western] ones, which in
many ways are old questions. Is he a dictator or a democrat? Is he a reformer
or is he an old-guard or retrograde? The question is really, I think, is he a
The RFE/RL analyst says he is concerned about a narrowness of viewpoint and
wishful thinking he has discerned.
He says The New York Times published an article recently by a writer
identified as a Russia scholar that questioned whether Putin would take
Russia back to early reforms of nearly 10 years ago, such as unregulated free
markets. The chances of that, in Jensen's words, are "roughly zero."
He adds that comments describing Putin hopefully as a reformer are equally
unrealistic. Jensen says such talk stems from misinformation. As the RFE/RL
specialist puts it:
"I think, in reality, Putin is a product of the last decade of the Russian
system. That he is neither a dictator nor a democrat, that he is neither a
reformer in the sense that we in the United States would like to believe he
is, nor a Soviet communist. He's a new kind of figure that emerges from this
particular Russian crisis. And things he calls for that seem on the surface
contradictory are not."
Jensen says these include urging both a strong state and private property, or
calling for both a powerful, independent Russian foreign policy and for
progress and cooperation with international institutions. In Jensen's words:
"These things are not contradictory. They are just not Western ideas."
Jensen says comments about Putin as an unknown and somehow mysterious figure
also are uninformed. He says Putin has left a substantial record.
Jensen cites the following:
Putin was an intelligence agent in Germany probably engaged in economic
espionage at the time of the fall of East Germany. There were reports -- that
remain without any confirmation -- that indicate likely links with the
Russian oligarchs. Putin evidently never pushed to find the assassin of a
Duma liberal murdered in his stronghold of St. Petersburg; participated in
the use of sex scandal tapes to discredit a prosecutor who was pursuing
corruption charges within the political group known as the "Yeltsin family;"
and openly approved the long and fruitless pursuit and persecution of an
environmentalist who blew the whistle on (that is, disclosed) radioactive
pollution from deteriorating Russian nuclear submarines.
This record, Jensen says, reveals a tough, wily and probably very effective
strongman, but one who in the end will fail to bring Russia into the
community of democratic and free nations.
"What you'll see under a Putin presidency Year One is indeed an aggressive
attack on some kinds of corruption -- which will certainly not include those
oligarchs who support him. A very energetic pursuit of things like foreign
investment. A heavier emphasis on developing Russia's armed forces and that
kind of thing. All of this coming, I suspect, at the expense of building the
kind of 'rule of law' state that, in the long run, Russia really needs, not
only to reform the economy, but also to reform the political system."
Jensen says he expects Russian voters to elect Putin president on March 26,
both because he has a significant power base in Russia that is seeking to
pre-arrange things that way, but also because he is truly popular. That
popularity rests largely on his tough stance in the Russian war in Chechnya.
The RFE/RL expert says that the Russian leader is therefore vulnerable in
case of severe setbacks in Chechnya.
But in Jensen's words, "Probably not in the next 90 days."
The Economist (UK)
January 8-14, 2000
[for personal use only]
Putin the Great Unknown
RUSSIA needs a strong leader, able to get laws passed and obeyed, and
institutions built, rebuilt or cleansed of corruption. Vladimir Putin, its
new president, seems a strong, determined man, supported since parliamentary
elections in December by a fairly robust majority in the Duma, and standing a
fine chance of being elected as president in the popular vote that is now due
on March 26th. So Mr Putin is just what the Russian doctor ordered? Not so
fast. Before jumping to that conclusion, it is as well to review what is
known about this man and his supporters.
By the standards of a secretive, clannish place, Mr Putin’s background is
fairly clear (see article) but that still does not make him well-known. The
trouble is that the few facts that are available reveal little about his
political inclinations or his ideas about policy. Since he became prime
minister just over four months ago, and especially since becoming president
last week, he has made sure to offer reassuring noises to all the appropriate
constituencies: to sound democratic to democrats, reform-minded to reformers,
tough to tough-guys, reasonably western to reasonable westerners. But it is
not what he says that matters. It is what he does. And most of the
significant things that he has done, both in his short career as a political
leader and in his longer career as a spy, have been scary.
The case for suspicion
It is in that longer career that the worries begin. In any country, it would
be hard to imagine the former head of the domestic counter-intelligence
service becoming president. George Bush may have been head of America’s CIA,
but that was a political appointment and he was not a career spy. In Russia,
you might argue, everyone who is anyone has a dodgy background of some sort,
given seven decades of communism. And in lawless Russia, to have the trust of
the secret police and the army will be a big help. All that is true. But a
more sinister interpretation is just as plausible.
For much of this year, the role and influence of the secret police and the
army have been on the rise. Humiliated by Russia’s failed war in Chechnya in
1994-96, derided around the globe for years as a clapped out bunch of
incompetents, the Russian army has long been looking for a way to restore its
pride and morale. Last year’s NATO offensive in Kosovo left Russia looking
both unprepared and fourth-rate, apparently incapable of defending interests
or standing by allies. This was an exaggeration, but one the security
services and the military appear to have exploited to begin their comeback.
Then, following the incursion by Chechen rebels into neighbouring Dagestan in
the summer came a series of deadly bomb explosions in Moscow and other
Russian cities. This was the beginning, remember, of Mr Putin’s rise to power
No clear evidence has yet been found for who was responsible for those bombs,
and no one has claimed responsibility. Chechen rebels, which include some
pretty nasty characters, may well have been the culprits. But, in the absence
of evidence, other candidates should also be kept in mind. One of them is the
very service that Mr Putin used to head, once the core of the KGB and now
called the FSB. There is no evidence that it laid the bombs, either. Yet
given the huge benefits that he, and the security forces in general, have
gained from those tragedies it would be foolish to rule that thought out
altogether. What is clear is that this possibility needs to be weighed in any
assessment of what a long-term President Putin might be like.
Yeltsin’s happy new year
In a different way, the manner of President Yeltsin’s resignation was also
ominous. There is no doubt that it was long overdue; Mr Yeltsin would have
done his country a service by standing down at least two years ago. But there
is also a lot of doubt over whether he really wanted to stand down even six
months before the end of his term. A deal to protect him and his family from
prosecution for corruption, struck with a powerful prospect in the
forthcoming elections, may be explanation enough. But it did not look
terribly voluntary, and despite gestures of change in the Kremlin (such as
the ostentatious sidelining of Mr Yeltsin’s daughter) the signs are that the
same court of business oligarchs and security toughs will be running things
in future. Mr Yeltsin was, at least in his last years, their puppet (see
article). Which end of the strings Mr Putin holds remains to be seen.
There are, to be sure, better possibilities. Out of the Putin-strengthening
evil of the Chechen war could come institution-building,
rule-of-law-enforcing, enterprise-creating good. President Putin may indeed
believe, as he says he does, in an open society, with free speech, democratic
liberties and pro-market reforms. His desire to crush the Chechen rebels may,
in due course, be tempered by a realpolitik desire to stay on reasonable
terms with the Islamic world. His desire to stand up for Russia against the
West may be tempered by a realpolitik desire to keep open Russia’s access to
foreign money and to avoid outright confrontations with America.
All this suggests that outsiders and Russians alike should give President
Putin the benefit of the doubt. They should keep an open mind, certainly. But
for the moment, the sobering truth is that the facts—such as they are, given
that he is a former spymaster—lean more towards doubt than benefit.
January 24, 2000
Boris Yeltsin's sudden resignation as President on New Year's Eve provoked
ritual praise of his legacy by the same editorial voices that have been
championing him for nine years as Russia's great hope. Although there are
different schools of thought, our view-widespread in Russia but virtually
absent in the US media-is that the post-Communist "transition" Yeltsin
presided over has been for most Russians a social and economic disaster.
As Stephen F. Cohen wrote in these pages, "so great has been Russia's
economic and thus social catastrophe that we must now speak of another
unprecedented development: the literal demodernization of a
twentieth-century country." The middle class, the bedrock of a stable
society, was wiped out by the "shock therapy" imposed by Yeltsin and his
cabal of "young reformers." Some 70 percent of families now live below or
barely above the official poverty line. Russia is undergoing a demographic
and public health crisis unprecedented in peacetime. The power and
authority of a nuclear state have substantially disintegrated, while
corruption and asset-looting have run rampant. And while elements of
democracy still exist, most left over from the Gorbachev years, Yeltsin
undermined others, first by using tanks to shell an elected Parliament in
1993 and then by pushing through an authoritarian constitution, available
to any would-be dictator. The Russian media were freer in the early
nineties than they are today. As was apparent in the December parliamentary
elections, national television is controlled by intertwined oligarchic and
government interests, while the largest newspapers are the playthings of
competing tycoons with enormous influence in the Kremlin. In short,
Yeltsin's legacy to his anointed successor, acting President Vladimir
Putin, is an embittered, polarized, impoverished nation.
We don't yet know the full story behind Yeltsin's resignation. His
contradictory speech gave the impression of a leader who had been
persuaded, gently or firmly, that he must vacate the Kremlin now to secure
the best possible deal or risk a far worse outcome in 2000. What we do know
is that this succession has nothing to do with economic reform or democracy
and much to do with the regime's fear of being held responsible for the
collapse and looting of Russia. One of Putin's first acts was to issue a
decree protecting Yeltsin from future prosecution for corruption. Yeltsin,
his blood relatives and "the family"-the oligarchs close to the Kremlin-are
desperate to avoid prosecution for the corruption scandals in which they
are implicated. Indeed, last August the unknown Putin was appointed prime
minister because he was considered a loyal praetorian successor who would
guarantee their property and protect them from retribution.
The gains of Yeltsin's leaving sooner rather than later were, at least,
transparent. With the advantages of incumbency and by moving the
presidential election up to March 26, Putin can capitalize on his enormous
popularity from leading the brutal war in Chechnya. He will also command
the powers of the state, the media, the loyalty of most regional governors
(some of whom reportedly helped falsify parliamentary election returns) and
vast resources squeezed from privatized industries to undermine his two
leading opponents, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov of the Fatherland
Party and Communist Party leader Gennadi Zyuganov. The war's popularity and
these czarlike powers of incumbency were the main reasons for the strong
showing of the pro-Kremlin parties in the parliamentary elections.
Furthermore, there are signs that another economic collapse, a new default
crisis, may loom-yet another reason behind the Putin faction's eagerness to
have the elections as soon as possible.
The 47-year-old Putin remains an unknown and untested figure. He has no
diplomatic or domestic economic experience. The only certainty is that for
the first time since Yuri Andropov briefly led the Soviet Union in 1982-84,
Russia has a secret-policeman as its leader. Putin is a career KGB official
who has never held elected office. His political experience consists of
dismissing indictments against corrupt oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky,
apprenticing to the corrupt mayor of St. Petersburg and serving as deputy
to an official in the presidential administration who is a target of
Russian and Swiss investigations into Kremlin bribery and embezzlement
In Russian politics three months can be like three decades. If Chechnya
becomes a quagmire, the economy sours or the censorship now in force
develops leaks and the true Russian casualty figures emerge-there are
reports of mounting casualties-Putin's star could decline and that of
Primakov, his leading potential opponent, could rise again. (A year ago,
Primakov's popularity ratings were as high as Putin's are now.)
It is unclear what Putin will do if he is elected. He has made statements
suggesting he might seek legitimacy through an assault on corruption. To do
that, however, he will need an independent power base. For now, despite the
removal of Yeltsin's daughter, indications are that he will serve the
interests of the Kremlin inner circle who created him and who have profited
so handsomely from the privatization process.
It is also unclear what Putin will mean for the West. US policy on Russia
has been in a state of collapse for some time and is now held captive to
elections in both countries. Arguably, Washington has less influence in
Russia today than it did during parts of the cold war-witness the futility
of Western condemnation of the Chechen war and the electoral success of
anti-Western, nationalistic rhetoric in the parliamentary elections.
Western governments have cautiously welcomed Putin as a man committed to
reform, but he is more accurately viewed as instinctively authoritarian.
Through his ideas runs a common thread-the need for the restoration of a
strong state. In December, over a government Internet site, Putin declared
that Western-style "liberal" politics and economics are not suited to
Russia. And his call for a greater role for the military and security
services, along with increased investment in Russia's ailing
military-industrial complex, suggests that Putin supports a more assertive
Russian foreign policy within "a multipolar world"-code for opposing the
expansion of US influence. He has also cultivated the military's desire for
revenge and rehabilitation in Chechnya, thereby winning its support as has
no other prime minister in recent history. Using the authoritarian
constitution that Yeltsin jury-rigged in 1993 to give himself added power,
Putin might take Augusto Pinochet for his model, as many Russian
"democratic" market reformers have urged him to do. He has already warned
that attempts to violate the Constitution will be "crushed."
To be sure, a larger state role would be welcome if it meant regulating the
economy to better serve the Russian people and ending the crony capitalism
of Yeltsin and his associates. A stronger state that does not impose
repression and censorship, that collects taxes, pays wages and pensions,
keeps a vigilant watch over the nuclear stockpile, prosecutes large-scale
corruption and repairs the social safety net shredded under Yeltsin is what
Russia urgently requires.
For now, however, we are witnessing in Putin's rise the emergence of an
ironhanded leader who, by exploiting Russians' desire for law and order,
has struck a sympathetic chord among millions sick of the corruption of the
past years. Perhaps that will be Yeltsin's final legacy.
Excerpt re Russia
THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
January 6, 2000
As Prepared for Delivery
REMARKS BY SAMUEL R. BERGER
ASSISTANT TO THE PRESIDENT FOR
NATIONAL SECURITY AFFAIRS
TO THE NATIONAL PRESS CLUB
National Press Club Building
American Leadership in the 21st Century
One critical question for the next generation and beyond is whether
our former adversaries Russia and China will emerge as stable,
prosperous, democratic partners of the United States.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union nine years ago, our engagement
with a democratic Russia has produced concrete results -- the
dismantlement of 5,000 former Soviet nuclear weapons, the withdrawal
of Russian troops from the Baltics, Russia's role in ending the
conflict in Kosovo on acceptable terms, and the cooperation our troops
have forged in Bosnia and Kosovo. Russia itself is still struggling
with demons that have bedeviled it for years: the legacy of
totalitarianism, poverty, corruption, conflict in the Caucasus. But
the way President Yeltsin left office last week reflected just how
much has changed. For the first time in their thousand year history,
the Russian people now know that leaders can voluntarily transfer
power, under constitutional rules, instead of holding on till death or
being forced from office. Just as important, their new government has
promised to uphold basic liberties and Russia's break with communism,
and to hold free and fair Presidential elections. The world will be
looking with great interest as the Russian government moves forward in
meeting this pledge.
Acting President Putin enjoys strong support from the Russian people
and a newly elected Duma. That's no guarantee of progress on the
issues that matter most to us, but we certainly intend to seek it,
including further reductions in strategic weapons as we work to
develop a national missile defense system while preserving the ABM
Treaty. Whoever is elected Russia's next President will also inherits
a tough challenge -- to give Russians the sense of stability they
crave after years of wrenching change and the hope their sacrifices
will be rewarded. The question is whether stability and hope will be
based on strengthening or weakening the rule of law? That question
applies to Chechnya as well: We've made clear that Russia's fight
against terrorism is right, but its use of indiscriminate force is
wrong. And it is inviting far more serious problems for itself than it
can possibly be solving. But we should not stop supporting those
forces in Russia that are trying to strengthen the rule of law and
build faith in democratic institutions. Russia is paying a price for
its conduct in Chechnya; Russian democracy must not.
Date: Thu, 06 Jan 2000
From: "Jerry F. Hough" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Putin and Yeltsin
I have refrained from commenting on Putin because I believe what
everyone says: that it is unpredictable. After everyone says this,
however, they then predict something. I think that the options range
from Yeltsin coming back as head of a Russian-Belarus federation to Putin
actually being a democrat, with dozens of intermediate options that are
more likely. It really is unpredictable.
What disturbs me is the unwillingness to face up to what Yeltsin
did. The AFP dispatch of January 6 is typical. It begins: Soviet
planning is ended, prices are freed, and property privatized. All that
is absolutely wrong. The non-monetary form of distribution of goods is
largely planned ("barter" is as accurate a word as "sovereignty" for
Ukrtaine in 1949), property is perhaps 25% privatized, and price
stability has been achieved through a combination of controls
(particularly in agriculture) and a system of non-payment of prices that
means that the government can insist that non-inflationary prices are
I have been checking footnotes for my Logic of Economic
Reform, which will be out in the spring. I have relooked at Abalkin's
work. He is still director of the Institute of Economics and still a real
reformer. He is publishing an enormous amount. Why are
reporters and scholars not reporting his position--an industrial
policy--as a legitimate one? Why is Glazev not interviewed,
with scholarly articles like Aslund wrote in the 1980s on economic
debates in Russia? He is near the top of the Communist list, but was
Gaidar's foreign trade minister. Scholars and journalists have a lot
of work to do.
The fact that the Russian economy remains some 75 percent Soviet is of
real importance. Putin said that the military defense
budget should increase 57 percent. Words mean nothing in Russia, and
God knows what, if anything, he meant. But all arms controllers should
understand that the defense budget does need to go up a large amount.
Russia adopted off-budget spending because IMF was happy with formal
compliance to monetary indicators. Military spending is way above the
military budget, with free electricity, subsidized food prices, and tax
writeoffs for supplies and equipment. It is possible that the military
budget needs to go up at least 57 percent to get everything on budget,
and this is vital if we ever are going to get the transparency needed for
democracy and reduce corruption.
Hopefuls line up to challenge Russia's Putin
By Peter Graff
MOSCOW, Jan 6 (Reuters) - Russia's presidential hopefuls began lining up on
Thursday and the overwhelming favourite, Acting President Vladimir Putin,
took his first major steps in economic policy since taking charge in the
Putin, an icy-mannered former spy, was thrust into power after Boris Yeltsin
resigned as president on New Year's eve. He also remains Russia's prime
minister, and tops polls to succeed Yeltsin in an election on March 26.
His first challengers entered the race, one day after the election date was
set. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, Siberian provincial governor Aman
Tuleyev and nationalist parliamentarian Vladimir Zhirinovsky all received
Liberal Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky has said he too will run,
although he has also said no candidate is likely to make much of a dent in
Putin's runaway popularity.
But questions still hang over whether former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov,
once seen as Putin's main challenger, will stay in the race. Primakov said in
December he would run, but has not confirmed his candidacy since Yeltsin
resigned and many of his allies now say they back Putin.
Putin's popularity is based mainly on the so-far successful campaign in rebel
Chechnya, although there are signs that Russia's military progress is
stalling due to stiff resistance from rebels holed up in the ruined capital
With the presidential campaign under way, Putin is clearly keen to place his
mark on other areas of policy as well.
PUTIN LEAPS INTO ECONOMIC POLICY
He leapt boldly into economic affairs on Thursday announcing measures to
shake up Russia's system for exporting raw materials, which form the core of
its hard currency earnings.
World platinum prices tumbled on news Putin had eliminated a legal hitch that
kept Russia from exporting the metal in 1999.
He also scrapped a system allowing schemes that produced hundreds of millions
of dollars in tax breaks for aluminium exporters. The system had been a bone
of contention in Russian economic policy, its merits argued in
exporter-funded billboards plastered on Moscow streets.
Putin also said he favoured a cut in interest rates to boost business and
markets, and backed a central bank plan to force Russia's exporters to swap
all foreign exchange earnings into roubles to support the battered currency.
He signed a decree announcing that Russia would refocus its security policy
on fighting terrorism and organised crime, although few details were
And he also took the opportunity to show a softer side, wishing a merry
Christmas to Russians who, like other Orthodox Christians, celebrate the
holiday 13 days after Catholics and Protestants. Yeltsin spent the holiday in
Bethlehem with Patriarch Alexiy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
FAMILIAR FACES PUT FORWARD BIDS
Putin's challengers in the vote are mostly familiar faces and some of them
have sought the presidency before.
Zyuganov, who was second to Yeltsin in the 1996 election, was confident of
his own chances as he accepted a nomination by a group of nationalists and
``Our 'For Victory' movement has a strong team and solid support,'' Interfax
news agency quoted him as saying.
The Communists won the largest number of seats in December's parliamentary
election, but Zyuganov has never managed to widen his constituency beyond a
base of mainly elderly loyalists.
Zhirinovsky's nationalist views were once enough to rattle Western markets,
but his party mostly backs the government.
Tuleyev, left-leaning governor of the coal-rich Kemerovo region, told RIA
news agency he wanted to support Russia's far-flung regions in their battles
with the centre.
But Primakov, the man once seen as Putin's strongest opponent, may turn out
to be a no-show.
Regional governors forming the backbone of his Fatherland-All Russia bloc
have said they will back Putin, and a senior figure in the bloc, Oleg
Morozov, suggested on Thursday that Primakov and Putin should not run against
January 6, 2000
[for personal use only]
The real Vladimir Putin
By Paul J. Saunders
Paul J. Saunders is director of the Nixon Center.
With characteristic optimism about matters Russian, President Clinton
has already said that he is "off to a good start" with Russia's acting
president, Vladimir Putin. Moreover, the president was apparently
sufficiently impressed by a New Year's Day conversation with the new Kremlin
leader to characterize it as "encouraging for the future of democracy in
Russia." But Mr. Clinton's eagerness to maintain the facade of his
administration's "successful" Russia policy ignores serious questions about
Mr. Putin's background, particularly regarding the nature of his association
with Russia's corrupt oligarchy. The answers to those questions may have
profound implications for Russia's development and American interests.
While the administration has rushed to burnish Mr. Putin's reformist
credentials by highlighting his long service in St. Petersburg (still
Leningrad when he arrived), under the city's former mayor, Anatoly Sobchak,
this and other periods in Mr. Putin's career are ambiguous at best. First of
all, very little is yet known about his decade-and-a-half as an officer in
the KGB. Mr. Putin left his last post, in East Germany, just as communism
collapsed there. This has led some to suggest that he may have been involved
in operations intended to defend the dying regime of Erich Honecker. Other
reports accuse Mr. Putin of having been involved in the illicit privatization
of Soviet property in East Germany. If Mr. Putin is to be associated with the
lofty goals of the "radical reformers" in St. Petersburg, where he served as
deputy mayor from 1994 to 1996, he is no less associated with their venal
excesses. While serving as deputy mayor, Mr. Putin was accused of holding
foreign property and bank accounts and was investigated by a commission of
St. Petersburg legislators for granting export licenses in a shady barter
deal. The commission recommended his dismissal, which Mr. Sobchak resisted.
When Mr. Sobchak lost an ugly re-election race in 1996, Mr. Putin moved
to Moscow as a protégé of another St. Petersburg veteran, the notorious
Anatoly Chubais. Soon thereafter, Russian prosecutors launched an
investigation of Mr. Sobchak; he left Russia for medical treatment during the
investigation and did not return until earlier this year.
Mr. Putin's new post was as a deputy to Pavel Borodin, the Kremlin's
business manager. Mr. Borodin, who controls a vast empire of Russian
government real estate, cars, and other assets, is most recently known for
awarding highly lucrative contracts to a Swiss construction firm for Kremlin
renovations as part of an alleged kickback scheme. The Swiss company,
Mabetex, also was implicated in the Bank of New York money-laundering scandal
and reportedly paid for credit cards issued in the names of members of the
Yeltsin family. Mr. Chubais, Mr. Putin's patron, was also enmeshed in a
series of corruption scandals himself, as were other members of the St.
Petersburg clique such as former privatization minister Alfred Kokh.
Mr. Putin's later conduct as director of Russia's Federal Security
Service, the principal successor agency to the KGB, raises further doubts
about his relationship with Mr. Chubais and other oligarchs in the so-called
"Family" — the Yeltsin inner circle. Mr. Putin played an active role in
squashing high-profile corruption investigations and at one point even
appeared on national television to confirm the authenticity of a videotape
purported to show the country's prosecutor general entertaining prostitutes.
The prosecutor had been leading inquiries into the behavior of Mr. Yeltsin's
daughter and the tycoon Boris Berezovsky, among others.
The fact that Mr. Putin's first official act was a decree granting Boris
Yeltsin and his family immunity from criminal prosecution (among other
benefits) suggests that Russia's acting president also had to cut a deal with
the Family to win power. Statements that Russia's crony privatization cannot
be reversed seem to reflect this as well. Because his popularity is largely a
manufactured phenomenon — created by carefully managed coverage of the
conflict in Chechnya by media outlets controlled by the government and the
Yeltsin entourage — Mr. Putin will remain dependent on the Family at least
until Russia's March elections, and possibly beyond.
Needless to say, Vladimir Putin is no more a prisoner of his past than
Russia is doomed by its own history. He has claimed that he will fight
corruption and may in fact do so. But only Mr. Putin's actions can tell us
what kind of a president he might be; his words have little significance,
particularly when he will face a crucial election in less than three months.
Regrettably — despite its concern over Russia's intervention in Chechnya,
which Mr. Putin orchestrated — the Clinton administration appears to have
failed to grasp this distinction.
Further, the administration seems confused about the difference between
words and deeds (also known as the difference between spin and reality) not
only in Russia, but also in the United States. Mr. Clinton's statement that
his call to Mr. Putin was "encouraging for the future of democracy in Russia"
makes this clear. The United States cannot base a successful Russia policy,
let alone an effective foreign policy, on this kind of self-deception.
[interview with Michael Urban, professor of politics at the
University of California at Santa Cruz]
An expert on post-Soviet Russia explains how former spy leader Vladimir Putin
is using the war in Chechnya to lock in the presidential election -- and why
the U.S. doesn't mind a bit.
By Fiona Morgan
Fiona Morgan is the news wire editor for Salon News.
Jan. 6, 2000 | As the world celebrated the turn of the millennium, Russia
celebrated a change in political leadership. On Dec. 31, Boris Yeltsin
startled the world by stepping down from the presidency and passing the
mantle to a relative unknown: then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Since the announcement, observers and journalists have speculated as to
whether this man, a former head of the KGB, will bring desperately needed
economic leadership to Russia -- and at what cost to democracy. Though the
Russian presidential election is less than 12 weeks away, the acting
president appears to have virtually no opponents.
The war against the breakaway region of Chechnya has shown to be a major
factor in Putin's incredibly high 75 percent approval rating. Already
bitterly devastated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians lost a war
with Chechen insurrectionists in 1996 -- at a cost of up to 100,000 Chechen
lives -- which made Chechnya a de facto, but not legal, independent state.
The staunchly separatist region, which lies between the Black Sea and Caspian
Sea, is predominantly Muslim, and has had a long history of anti-Russian
sedition since the time of the czars.
The war erupted again last October, after reports that Chechen separatists
had bombed apartment buildings in Moscow and other Russian cities. In the
face of international protest of human rights violations against the fierce
but militarily weak Chechens, Russians insist that crushing the rebellion is
a matter of national security.
Will public approval of a patriotic war eclipse any possibility for change in
the chilly halls of the Kremlin? Michael Urban, professor of politics at the
University of California at Santa Cruz, has authored several books on Soviet
and post-Soviet politics. He spoke with Salon News about how to read between
the lines of both Russian and Western reports on current events.
Is it inevitable that he will be elected president?
As much as anything can be inevitable, this seems to be. It seems that he
really has no rivals at the moment. The party that borrowed his name in the
election last December, the Unity Party -- which is not a party at all, just
a collection of people thrown together by the people running the Kremlin and
placed on the ballot, and which was associated with Putin day after day in
the news -- surprised everybody by almost winning, missing first place by one
percentage point. That and public opinion polls in which Putin scores about a
75 percent rating of approval -- which is simply unbelievable for Russia --
suggests that his popularity at the moment is soaring. A quick election would
probably put him in the presidency for the next four years.
But he came out of nowhere, didn't he?
People don't know what his stands are on issues?
Of course not.
Is that contributing to his popularity?
Yes. At the moment, the Russians seem to be very grateful for one thing:
There are tremendous symbolic victories, that are bought with blood, that
appear on their television sets every day [in Chechnya]. This is the only
thing they have to show for themselves for the last 10 years.
Russia feels itself pushed around. Its empire collapses. The country itself,
the Soviet Union, disintegrates. Russia thereafter is not taken seriously in
international affairs. NATO expands into its former sphere of influence. NATO
plans to absorb the former Soviet republics. It would be a bit like the
U.S.S.R. winning the Cold War, and the U.S. seeing Canada and Mexico join the
Warsaw Treaty Organization, to be followed by Maine, Washington state and
Michigan. This naturally would set off a great deal of concern, bordering on
hysteria in our country. We can imagine how that would appear for the
We can extend the analogy a little further, against the backdrop of an
economic collapse. Everything is underfunded -- education, health, investment
-- to the tune of maybe 15, 20 percent of what it was being funded 10 years
ago. On the face of all that, if there were a rebellion in East Los Angeles,
and the U.S. Army went in there to stop it and failed, and East L.A. became
de facto independent, that would be the analogy with Chechnya. You can
imagine how crazy people would be in this country. That's how crazy the
Russians are today.
In his dismissal of international criticisms of the war, Putin seems to be
appealing to an anti-Western, nationalist sentiment. Yet he says that he will
cooperate with the West on economic issues. How do you see that playing out?
I don't know what that means. I think it means that they want to receive more
loans from the West.
How do you look at their compounded debt and the additional World Bank loans
playing out under Putin?
Those are bribes that the West sends to Russia to purchase services of the
top Russian elite for any number of matters: Look the other way when NATO
expands; intervene in Yugoslavia to advance Western efforts against the
Serbian government; and basically behave yourselves in the world and accept
American hegemony. In return for that we send you billions of dollars, and
we're not that fussy about what you do with it. We've known for a very long
time that that money, in the main, is simply ripped off, sent to Cypress,
Switzerland and now we find out, Bank of New York. And the people who do that
are the very people who receive this money literally in suitcases. There's no
So there's been, in my estimation, under the form of economic assistance and
the rest, a big scam, a big racket that's been going on between our top elite
and theirs. In the face of this, it becomes important to remonstrate, to wave
our fists at them about Chechnya and for them to wave their fists back at us
about Chechnya so that each side assures its own that those in charge are
minding the store and taking care of the national interests.
The facts of the matter are that we have done nothing about preventing the
Russians from carrying out effectively a genocide in Chechnya during the
first Chechen war, in which some 100,000 people were killed, mainly innocent
civilians. Our president went to Moscow in the middle of that war and
compared the Russian president (Yeltsin), who was prosecuting the war, with
In this war, despite all the rhetoric about human rights and other rubbish,
what counts in this case is money. And the U.S. continues to back
international institutions in sending more and more money to Russia. That's
not free money. Already last year the Russian budget required more money in
debt servicing than the Russian government received in aid. But it does mean
fresh money, and money that those guys are prepared to play with. So as long
as we're sending the money, we're sending the message that it's OK to do
Putin said recently that he wants to increase military spending. Will
Russians object to that expenditure since it's run their economy into the
ground before? Or do you think that the majority are so in favor of
aggressive national leadership and the war against Chechnya that this won't
hurt Putin in the election?
It's not so much that it ran their economy into the ground -- it is their
economy. And what's happened in the last 10 years is that the industrial
sector -- the defense sector -- has been very stagnant, and that amounts to a
lot of unemployment. The Russians increased defense spending last year,
beginning last January, and they'll continue to do that I think for a number
of reasons. One, the people running the country now are mending fences and
reestablishing the larger ties with the old Soviet elite, and that sector of
arms production has been treated like a poor relation for the last 10 years.
I think they're being invited back to the table. Secondly, they need a lot of
weapons to carry out the kinds of policies that they're carrying out. As the
Chechen case is concerned, this is not going to end with the capture of
Grozny, this is going to be a long, protracted guerrilla war.
Finally, Russia wants to sell many weapons abroad to get foreign currency
earnings. Here the U.S. has set an abominable example. We had always in the
past argued that as long as Soviets are using arms as a way to get clients
abroad, we have no other choice but to do the same thing. When the Cold War
ended, Russia hugely cut back on its foreign arms sales. The Soviets and the
Russians removed themselves almost entirely from those markets in the early
'90s. And the U.S. did not follow suit, but rather moved itself into those
markets to expand our arms sales. So the great opportunity to realize what
the president of the U.S. used to talk about -- we shouldn't be the arms
merchant of the world, we should be the peace merchant of the world, etc. --
was squandered, deliberately, by the U.S. It's lead to a situation now in
which Russia has no interest whatsoever in refraining from selling arms and
every reason to want to sell arms, both for hard currency and for potential
influence. The arms industry in Russia [is likely to] go in that direction,
as if we don't have enough wars, massacres and genocide in places like Africa
and the far East today.
The bombing attacks on the Russian embassy in Beirut were apparently done by
Lebanese militants in protests of the Chechen war. Do you think that will
have any impact at all on the war, or on international responses to it?
It may be a signal of what this war is about. One way to paint it is a human
rights violation. Another way to paint it is Russia's internal problem. A
third way to paint it is, this is another anti-Islamic genocidal activity
conducted by Christian powers. This kind of Islamic genocide, as this
framework would say, was conducted against the Bosnians, against the
Kosovars, and now it's being conducted again against the Chechens. And it's
up to us, those who are loyal to Islam, to defend our brothers regardless of
borders. I think that's the kind of thinking that stands behind that bombing,
and that kind of thinking is certainly not going away with the capture of
those people who perpetrated the bombing. It could expand.
Mikhail Gorbachev said in an interview with an Italian newspaper that he was
very skeptical that things would improve in Russia under Putin. Despite
Putin's firing of Yeltsin's daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, Gorbachev insisted
that Putin is allied with exactly the same people in the Kremlin as was
Yeltsin. His exact quote was this: "The regime won't change, there won't be a
fight against corruption, the interests and the privileges of the oligarchy
will be fully protected." What are your thoughts on Putin's willingness to
shake up corruption in the Kremlin?
I agree with [Gorbachev's statement] 100 percent. It would be a little
unseemly to keep on Yeltsin's daughter -- what's her qualification, except
that she's Yeltsin's daughter? After pardoning Yeltsin, Putin's second act
was to retain the services of Yeltsin's chief of staff and first deputy chief
of staff. Those are the people that oversee the apparatus that runs the
presidency, and it's the presidency if anything that runs the country. I
think that apparatus has already been very penetrated and much staffed by
former KGB, or what they call now Federal Security Services. Putin was head
of the Federal Security Services until he became prime minister last August.
We are in a position now to be speaking seriously about praetorianization,
when a particular armed group of people, in this case secret services,
effectively become the inner state. Putin is the leader of these people; a
huge number of them are already working in the offices of the presidency. I
see more and more a close connection between the secret police and the formal
holders of state power in the presidency.
How does the Chechen war figure into this rise of secret service power in the
It's impossible to make the connection directly, but I'm very suspicious
about those events that produced the mass approval and support for the
Chechen war -- the bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow and one or two
other cities in Russia last September. The Russians have been able to bring
nobody to justice. It sounds very much like a Reichstag fire: the way Hitler
came to power by getting rid of the communists, blaming the burning of the
Reichstag on them. It seems to me this is a very comparable situation.
We have at least this much information: That the prime minister in charge is
KGB. That these people are cold blooded and certainly would not be above such
measures. Thirdly, that the previous prime minister, who was a Yeltsin
loyalist who had only been in office three or four months, is abruptly
terminated, with this KGB guy Putin put in his place. Soon the Chechen war
erupts. During this period of time, citizens who were told to be vigilant
actually caught a number of secret police planting bombs in an apartment in a
place called Rostoff. These people were arrested and then let go. And the
news story that the government put out was, this was a training exercise to
see if the people's vigilance was up to the task of catching out these
bombers. It's a bit far fetched.
Finally, in the newspapers about every three weeks, more bombs are
discovered. None of these bombs goes off, but somehow the police get to know
about a bomb that is hidden in the bushes in the countryside below Moscow.
Or, something I was reading in the paper yesterday, somehow the police were
on a quote "routine documents check" on a Tuesday, at midnight, they find an
empty apartment in which they discover a huge supply of explosives all hooked
up and ready to be detonated. It seems a little bit much to believe.
So with these things in mind -- the motivation, the capability, and then
these extraordinary events -- I do not dismiss, and in fact tend to accept
the idea that those bombings were staged by Putin and his friends in order to
gain the presidency.
Despite Putin's eerie connection to the KGB, many people in the Western press
seem excited about the possibility of economic reform that he could bring.
That's a code word that means absolutely nothing. They've had their reform.
What it has produced is a small oligarchy of people who have stolen
everything that was there to steal. That's been the reform. Any further
reform would involve, I think, re-nationalization, and that's the last thing
that any Western official wants to see. [Re-nationalization would mean] what
used to belong to the state and was sold off for a song will be reconfiscated
or reacquired by the state -- we're going to make this a national company
again instead of a private one. That would be a reform. But so far, they've
privatized their economy for nothing.
What is valuable has been taken by those politically well-connected people
who run the country today. Some of them are called in our press "reformers"
-- they're simply crooks. The money that is made from these organizations is
not invested in Russia; it's sent abroad. It's not even gangsterism. As
someone said the other day, Al Capone didn't put his money in Switzerland.
It's simply slash and burn. These people have ruined the country. To deflect
attention from that fact, they're playing another card: the national
patriotic card. Here will be a strong man to give Russia the protection and
the dignity that she needs. And that's what's behind the entire orchestration
-- the television effort behind this war and the entire catapulting of an
unknown person into a 75 percent approval rating, and apparently the
presidency in a few weeks.
It's very shameless it seems to me. And for our commentators -- not all of
them, of course, but too many of them -- especially for our vice president to
talk about "reform" -- that just means "something good." Russia's experience
of reform has been an unmitigated disaster. The last thing Russians want is
more "reform." That's a word used for our audience. It has something to do
with Russia becoming more like us, or some rubbish. Nothing could be further
from the truth.
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