Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#9 - JRL 7213
June 6, 2003
The Dilemmas of Red or Expert
By Peter Lavelle

Last weekends St. Petersburg tercentennial bash provided what Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted most to get from the occasion international prestige and respect for Russia. One cannot exclude the possibility that he wanted the same for himself, especially with elections just around the corner.

There can be no doubt that Russias political elite gleefully welcomed the massive media coverage leading up to the arrival of some of the worlds most important leaders. The coverage also revived the question that has been asked even haunted us for three years now: Who is Putin? Since it appears impossible to answer this question in a satisfactory way, it might be better to ask, How does the Putin system work or fail to work?

One interpretation of the Putin system can found under the rubric of red or expert though with an important caveat. Not unlike in the Communist revolutions of the last century, the Putin system faces the problem of cherishing loyalty while at the same time being careful not to alienate experts who can help make the revolution a reality. During the Bolshevik Revolution, experts were needed to run factories and state institutions that the revolutionaries were woefully unprepared to handle. While often ideologically suspect, experts were either integrated into the new system or eliminated (Stalin stressing the latter course once he ascended to power).

Revolutionary regimes, to one degree or another, always favor loyalty over expertise. The level of a persons education or intelligence was of little concern as long as the cadres supported the party line irrespective of how often the party line changed. Loyalty meant that the party was always right. Putin, for his part, likes to be told he is right. He may even demand it.

In Putins revolution, the historical red or expert dilemma has been turned upside down and inside out. In Putins system, the "reds" are the most competent and loyal, while the supposed experts are only loyal to maintaining the status quo. The roles are reversed, an amazing paradox considering Putins background in the security forces. The cadre in which he had his professional training is his weakest link.

Putin seems to know where he wants to take Russia and clearly understands the mindset and ability of the reds and experts who surround him. It is also clear that he promotes or deals with both groups in the most guarded way. In Putins Russia, the experts are protected, with the reds resentful and resistant. Who in Russias political elite have served Putin well or poorly during his tenure in office? The "reds who have been near him during his term are the likes of Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref or members of what is commonly called Putins economic bloc. They are the ones who are ideologically motivated to transform Russia into a modern state while respecting the appearance and growth of civil society. As reds, they are the minority experience in the state bureaucracy and are barely tolerated by the experts.

The experts are Russias security forces and military mostly bureaucrats and functionaries, survivalists from the old regime. Both have served Putin poorly, to the point of discrediting a great deal of what the reds have tried to achieve. The Kursk tragedy, countless outrages in Chechnya, the Nord-Ost catastrophe, and bribe-extorting police: The job performance of the security forces and the military has demonstrated that Putin has achieved little in the area of reforming and strengthening the state. Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and his clan are "experts" without loyalty to Putin and what seems to be his vision for Russia's future. Their expertise is put to other uses. They have no ideology beyond preserving the status quo on behalf of those who made their cash piles during the 1990s and are no friends of the "reds.

During the St. Petersburg celebrations, Putin showed the world only part of his complex personality. His red side looks remarkably Western and modern, even pragmatic. What the world saw very little of was his expert side and the extent to which the big bash was just another example of blunder and corruption. The Putin system does work. However, at its current level of development, the reds are fighting an uphill battle.

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