TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT (London), June 20, 2003, p. 10
303 pp. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. $40. 0-87003-201-1
(paperback $19.95. 0-87003-202X)
In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, there have been new winners, and new, as well as old, losers. Former KGB officers have seen their political careers advanced (with one of their number, Sergei Ivanov, becoming Minister of Defence), liberal economists from St Petersburg have taken over key economic ministries, and former subordinates of Putin from his years working for the Mayor of St Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, have moved into senior positions in the presidential apparatus. By creating seven superdistricts headed by governors general who are presidential appointees, Putin has curbed the autonomy of republican presidents and regional governors which at times during Boris Yeltsin's presidency threatened to get out of the control of the federal authorities.
For the armed forces and the Communists, who initially believed Putin to be a vast improvement over his predecessor, his first term has been a disappointment. They initially saw him as an advocate of a strong state which, in an important sense he was and remains, but he has pursued a foreign policy that some in the military have compared with that of Mikhail Gorbachev. They do not intend this as a compliment. They mean that Putin has made large concessions to the West and has received little in return to show for it. Yet Putin is, above all, a realist. He did not, for example, see any point in taking a strong stand against the presence of American troops in former Soviet Central Asia. If the presidents of those successor states to the USSR were going to acquiesce in this, there was nothing Russia could do to prevent it. Yet Putin has not been a pawn of the United States. He has been unwilling to anoint with the holy oil of the United Nations Washington’s claim to decide which of the numerous unpleasant, authoritarian regimes in the contemporary world should be overthrown. With his measured manner and absence of posturing over Iraq, he succeeded not only in being in tune with Russian public opinion but also in irritating his new friend, President Bush, far less than did his French and German counterparts.
In general, Russian foreign policy under Putin has been professionally conducted and can be counted a success story. It has combined flexibility with predictability, even if the White House and 10 Downing Street (perhaps because they did not listen sufficiently to their professionals in the State Department and the Foreign Office) were apparently taken by surprise when Putin formed a troika with Chirac and Schroeder opposed to replacing UN weapons inspectors by an invading army.
Domestically, Russia under Putin has presented a much more mixed picture. While still Prime Minister, Putin vigorously supported a second onslaught on Chechnya in response to the anarchy that existed there and the threat of terrorism emanating from the North Caucasus. As Chechnya turned into what Lilia Shevtsova in Putin’s Russia calls “a round-the-clock slaughterhouse”, this has been a manifest failure. The Kremlin has conspicuously failed to find viable Chechen interlocutors, a process not helped by their demonizing or radicalizing relative moderates who might have some credibility among a Chechen population that has suffered greatly. This bleeding wound in the Russian body politic is an outcome for which Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, bears huge responsibility, since it was during his presidency that the Chechen war of 1994-96 (which did so much to embitter relations), was launched, and Yeltsin himself was still president and supposedly in charge when the second war was started.
Shevtsova is one of the most astute and independent-minded observers of the Russian political scene. In Putin’s Russia she convincingly shows that the Kremlin decision-makers got themselves into the Chechen morass without the slightest idea of how they were going to get out of it. Most of her highly readable and perceptive book is, however, concerned with the even more fundamental questions of what kind of economic and political systems are being constructed in post-Soviet Russia. So far as the former is concerned, she finds good reason for arguing that Putin is committed to the development of a market economy. While the same might have been said of his predecessor, Yeltsin appointed a mixture of pro-marketeers and anti-marketeers, whereas Putin has been more consistently supportive of the market both in his public utterances and in his crucial appointments. That does not mean that market norms always prevail in practice. Insider dealing and the sale of state assets at knock-down prices to favoured tycoons have occurred also on Putin’s watch, though on a less egregious scale than under Yeltsin.
Politically, contemporary Russia is neither an authoritarian regime (although some of its constituent parts, such as Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and Kalmykia are local autocracies) nor a democracy, but a hybrid. Most of the democratic activists of the final years of the Soviet Union have, Shevtsova observes, fallen by the wayside to be replaced by “the last echelon of the Soviet nomenklatura” and power has passed to “the backbenchers of the Soviet ruling class”.
There are grounds for hope. Much of what Vladimir Putin has to say about democratic institutions – whether on the paramount importance of the rule of the law or the need to have fewer and stronger parties, with a government drawn from a party gaining a majority in parliament – is beyond reproach. The problem is the continuing gulf between precept and practice. Or as Shevtsova puts it: “Russians must overcome the major new temptation to pursue what seems the easiest road: imitating the market and democracy in their surface aspects while underneath preserving patron-client relations, the rule of the few, and governance without accountability”.
Shevtsova paints a nuanced picture. While critical of what some Kremlin spin-doctors refer to with pride as “managed democracy”, she sees at the very least a substantial minority, possibly a majority, of the population ready to embrace genuinely democratic institutions. She sees hope, too, in generational change – the coming to the fore soon of a generation that has not personally known fear, people who came of age either in the perestroika years or in post-Soviet Russia and who never had the conditioned reflexes of self-censorship or of obsequiousness to political power-holders. In Shevtsova’s words, Russia’s “future elites will be free of the complexes and phobias that burdened the ruling classes of the country for centuries”. (There is, it is only fair to add, a significant minority of Russians not in the first flush of youth, including many in the intellectual elite, who are prepared to defend even the flawed pluralism of contemporary Russia as an advance on the unreformed Soviet system and as a staging-ground towards something better.)
Russia has long been a country, whatever the political system, which places great potential power in the hands of its top leader. Thus, the issue of what part Vladimir Putin will play in furthering qualitative change for the better is as crucial as it is topical. He could, no doubt, see through two terms as president while avoiding great crises and acting as the ultimate umpire to whom powerful economic interests can appeal while they run an essentially oligarchical system. The paradox is that Putin may have to exercise substantial individual power if he is to advance far-reaching economic and political reform. Shevtsova admits that it is “thanks in great part” to what she calls, exaggerating a little, “Putin’s authoritarianism” that “Russia has revived economic reform and has entered into an alliance with Western countries”. She rightly distances herself, however, from those tycoons who, wishing to see a further consolidation of their private economic power, call on Putin to become a “Russian Pinochet”.
If Putin’s own words are to be taken at face value, he has a clear understanding of the need for democratic institution-building. Yet he still presides over a personalistic political system. Both in style and appeal, he has been, to say, the least, multifaceted. He has, Shevtsova suggests, been “liberal, statist, and populist at the same time” and both “Russian patriot and pro-Western”. There is no necessary contradiction between the last two values, since an enlightened patriotism in Russia today surely involves saying goodbye to fortress Russia, together with the myth of Russia’s special destiny, and embracing the norms of democratic pluralism that have been institutionalised in the West.
Lilia Shevtsova is not only a well-informed commentator on Russian politics, she is a democratic activist. She will not be alone in continuing to struggle for pluralist democracy in Russia, with or without Putin. “Leadership”, writes Shevtsova, “is still the basic Russian institution. But sooner or later, Russians themselves will have to decide the country’s fate”. However, she has not abandoned all hope of Putin. She notes that from early in his presidency he “demonstrated an ability to think and speak logically and precisely” and proved to be “both amazingly methodical and intellectually curious”. To a much greater extent than Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin seems to realise the limitations of personalistic rule and to understand the importance of political institutions. If, and it remains a big if, he matches his words with deeds, the unlikely figure of a former KGB Colonel could yet rank among those who gave his country a decisive push in the direction of European democracy.