Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

Vol. 1, No. 28, 5 November 2001

ROOM FOR MANEUVER. This week, "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly" asked a number of U.S. experts on Russia to comment on the possible impact on domestic policies of President Putin's shift towards the U.S. in foreign policy. Will Putin's shift towards the U.S. in foreign policy require him to make concessions on his domestic policy? The consensus view appears to be that Putin remains in a fairly strong position and more than capable of continuing to shape the country's political and economic agenda.

Steve Solnick, Columbia University: I think that to understand the domestic consequences of Putin's apparent Westward tilt, we need to step back and consider the nature of his domestic support. Is Putin more of a Western leader, basing his legitimacy on electoral support and strong polls? Or is he more of a Soviet-style leader, inheriting an administration staffed by rival factions and appointed by his predecessor, in need of time to truly consolidate his power?

Putin clearly benefited from an electoral honeymoon in the wake of the March 2000 elections, but unlike Yeltsin in 1996 he has capitalized on this triumph to shuffle cadres in a manner that would have made [former Soviet leader Yurii] Andropov proud. He began by neutralizing the press as a weapon available to his rivals, thus leaving them vulnerable to either removal or "divide and conquer" tactics. He removed Gusinsky and Berezovskii from the scene, prompting the other would-be oligarchs to maintain a lower profile. He has fashioned a compliant Duma and a supine Federation Council. Through Federation Council reforms and the federal redistricting plan, he has chased the regional bosses out of Moscow, forcing them to tussle with federal proxies in seven scattered locales. He has been reasserting federal control over the most significant national monopolies, first at Gazprom and now at the rail ministry.

Crucially, Putin has managed to conduct this rolling purge without triggering the emergence of any coherent bloc of opposition. In fact, I think the overarching aim behind Putin's consolidation of power since 2000 has been to preclude the emergence of any new opposition coalition, loyal or otherwise, that would resemble the OVR gambit of 1999.

What does this imply for his most recent foreign policy initiatives? Clearly, Putin's strong support for the West and associated foreign policy and security shifts have not met with unified support from within the policy elite; nor have they resonated especially favorably in public opinion. However, if the preceding analysis is on target, the most disaffected opponents of his recent policies have no splits in his domestic power base to exploit, since Putin's consolidation of power has been effective.

This is where the recent suggestion that Putin may be repeating Gorbachev's mistakes breaks down. Gorbachev's foreign policies helped undermine him because they prompted groups in the military and security apparatus to find common cause with his domestic political opponents, resulting ultimately in the coalition behind the August 1991 coup. Putin, by contrast, is much further away from any tipping point that would bring silently disaffected actors into open opposition against him.

As a consequence, he has a significant cushion of time to demonstrate that his response to 11 September has brought Russia tangible benefits -- in the form of trading status (bilateral and WTO), increased foreign investment (such as the Exxon commitment in Sakhalin), revived influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia (on the coattails, ironically, of American troops), etc. Those tangible benefits are important in the long run, however, and I'm certain they feature prominently on Putin's agenda for the Crawford summit.

Thomas Remington, Emory University: I do not foresee any shift in Putin's policies on the domestic front arising from his foreign policy moves. He has taken advantage of an opportunity to establish a stronger working relationship with the United States, from which he has already won benefits for Russia (in the areas of Russia's interests in the Caucasus, on Russia's membership in the WTO, and on missile defense) and from which more benefits will doubtless accrue in the future. Well before this time, he had already committed himself to a clear liberal direction in domestic economic policy, taking strong stands on highly contentious issues such as pension reform, land ownership, labor relations, business deregulation, and reform of the utilities sector.

At the same time he has taken steps to narrow the range of permissible political competition and discourse and to create something like a paternalistic or neo-corporatist model of state- society relations. At this point I do not see that he must make any concessions to domestic opponents as compensation for his foreign policy stance. There are no organized domestic political forces strong enough to mount serious opposition to his policy program. Putin has been unusually astute in building up political alliances and neutralizing potential opponents, and he has wide room for maneuver.

Andrew S. Weiss, Council on Foreign Relations: I see relatively few direct consequences for Putin's domestic agenda from his embrace of the U.S.-led campaign against the bin Laden network and the Taliban. Putin's principal problems at home are related to keeping up the momentum for his ambitious economic and legal structural reform program in the face of continued opposition from entrenched vested interests. While some of those groups -- e.g., the military and security services, the Moscow elite -- are already grumbling rather loudly about Putin's dramatic (and I would argue, unexpected) response to the U.S. military campaign, they will accrue very little political benefit from their opposition and will have to use other tools to impede Putin's efforts.

And with Putin's phenomenally high approval ratings and the favorable landscape of competing political forces, I think the Kremlin will not need to adopt new tactics to advance its agenda. The determination of that agenda remains tied to a calculation of what is good for Putin's standing and what the economy needs to move forward (without going too far, of course). Any acceleration or adjustment to the economic reform agenda will be driven by the deepening global recession and downward pressure on energy commodity prices.

Michael McFaul, Stanford University: In deciding to make concrete policy changes to reflect his rhetorical support for the American war against terrorism, Putin has acted against the preferences of many important constituencies within Russia. Publicly, direct criticism of Putin has been limited. After all, Putin still enjoys a 70 percent approval rating, making it unwise politically to speak out against him. Equally important, there is no serious opposition leader or political force in Russia today. This lack of an effective opposition means that criticism -- even if it did become public -- would not be threatening to the president. Finally, because most national television networks are now loyal to the president, public criticism of Putin does not travel very widely.

Nonetheless, below the surface, there are subtle signs of discontent with Putin's new support for American military action in Russia's own backyard. The military, first and foremost, cannot be happy about NATO troops in Central Asia. Second, the intelligence services do not welcome the new alliance. Putin's defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, had to reverse his earlier remarks of caution about the American effort and pledged his support for Putin's position. Nonetheless, many analysts in Russia believe that Ivanov could become the focal point of opposition to Putin within the government should the pro-American policy adopted by Putin not yield results, or should the American war effort turn sour.

Third, the military-industrial complex does not welcome the new Western orientation. These companies enjoy contracts with American enemies such as Iran and Syria and hope to develop even further relations with other American enemies in the Middle East such as Iraq. Fourth, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and Vladimir Zhirinovskii's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia have spoken openly against Russia's new foreign policy orientation, arguing that Putin's new strategy represents a sell out of Russian national security interests. Fifth, even the pro-Western liberals are divided. Publicly, the Union of Rightist Forces and its chairman, Boris Nemtsov, have endorsed Putin's strategic Western turn. Grigory Yavlinskii and his Yabloko party also have praised the president's foreign policy moves. At the same time, and less publicly, voices within both of these organizations worry that Putin will use the camouflage of the war against terrorism to roll back democratic practices within Russia even further.

Sixth, Russian society is divided. While the majority in polls has expressed solidarity with the American cause, this same society is divided about the wisdom of engaging in another war with Afghanistan.

Does this long list of opponents to Russia's new American tilt mean that Putin will be constrained in pursuing his new own agenda in domestic or foreign policy? Not yet. On the domestic front, liberals still dominate economic policymaking and continue to march forward with genuine structural reforms. Those political forces that oppose these economic reforms simply are not strong enough to demand compromises.

Paul J. Saunders, Nixon Center: At present, President Putin's newly cooperative approach toward the United States is not likely to lead to any significant changes in Russian domestic policy. With a few exceptions, Mr. Putin's domestic agenda has been cautious with respect to both Russian public opinion and sentiment in the State Duma. Thus the Russian president probably will not face heavy pressure to modify his domestic policies, as the opposition to what he has done so far has been limited in scope and impact.

This may change over time, however. If the Kremlin's new orientation toward Washington fails to bring tangible benefits to Russia, President Putin may risk being seen as another Boris Yeltsin; that is, as making foreign policy concessions that allow him to address the U.S. president on a first-name basis but otherwise do little else. If Mr. Putin's leadership and judgment in foreign policy matters are questioned, this concern could "spill over" into Russian domestic politics. The eventual form of what appears to be an emerging deal on missile defense and reductions in nuclear forces will be especially important in this context, as will be the evolution and consequences of the U.S. military presence in Central Asia. Economic issues like debt rescheduling will also draw attention.

Another interesting question is how Russians will react to new domestic measures undertaken by the Kremlin in the wake of 11 September. For example, though many expected the U.S. war on terrorism to facilitate a Russian crackdown in Chechnya, Moscow in fact seems to have moderated its position somewhat, though its sincerity remains to be seen. Taking into account growing public support for a negotiated solution in Chechnya, this will probably help the rest of President Putin's agenda rather than undermining it. Military reform is another interesting case as the Russian leader seems to be trying to exploit the post-11 September environment to introduce changes long resisted by his country's armed forces. If the U.S. war on terrorism goes well, he may be successful; if it goes poorly, the Kremlin may confront new resistance from the generals and broader public discontent at the same time.

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