Restoration in Russia: Much Needed and Inevitable

Handing over power to Vladimir Putin in 1999, Boris Yeltsin sought to preserve the political alignment of forces and coordinates he set during his rule in Russia in 1991-1999. The project ‘Heir’ did not only imply selecting a man from Yeltsin’s ‘camp’, but the one who would preserve the status quo of the regime. This is indicated, among other things, by the fact that he insisted on his ‘key men’ Alexey Voloshin and Mikhail Kasyanov to have the longest possible term in office.

However, the overall results of Putin’s five-year office show that he has discarded most of Yeltsin’s heritage.

First of all, he bridged the basic gap of Yeltsin’s epoch, the gap between the left and the right wings. Under Yeltsin, there was a continuous struggle between the authority, on the one hand, and the communists, patriots and socialist-oriented part of the population, on the other. The country was fevered by constant strife; the State Duma, where the communists had majority, being in the vanguard of struggle with Yeltsin and the elite, could not carry out the legislative process, as their laws did not suit the executive and were virtually directed against the latter.

Putin neutralised the left, adopting much of their arguments: Russia does have the acute demographic problem (the low birth- and high death-rates), the oligarchy dominance, corruption and weak army. These points were taken upon by Putin in his election program, at least as a rhetoric (in the part of olgarchy limitations and army financing they were put into actual practice). Then, Putin broke the Communists’ ‘monopoly’ on patriotism, thus rendering their traditional ‘anti-people’s regime’ rant meaningless.

Communists are now heard only when the authority initiates rash, unprepared and ill-grounded laws, like the monetisation of perquisites for pensioners – the measure, which was not enough elucidated in the press.

Secondly, the President was able to revamp the pattern of power and unite the elite. Putin assigned the issues of economy to liberal democrats, those of security – to the military and law enforcement, and entrusted the administrators who succeeded in retaining power in later Yeltsin’s weakened hands with domestic policy. These are all very different people representing differents parts of the elite, but to a certain extent united under Putin.

Why did the Union of the Right Forces (the SPS) lose the recent election? Because it was no longer indispensable: many government officers, such as German Gref, Alexey Kudrin, Igor Shuvalov pursue the rightist policy as it is. The perquisites monetisation, drafting the hyperliberal Forest Code, cancellation of State Standards for pharmaceutical products and even motioning prison privatisation are the telltale signs of the liberal course in Russia’s domestic policy (whether these measures are for the good or for the bad is another matter).

V. Putin has in his arsenal not only the leftist, but also the rightist ideas. It is not accidental that Anatoly Chubais tried to throw in the catchphrase ‘a liberal empire’ to define the present political system in Russia – the SPS was losing its ‘property right’ for liberal reforms. Neutralisation of the right wing is the third accomplishment of Putin’s office.

Fourth. Putin was able to considerably weaken the influence of big business on the State machinery and policy. Mikhail Khodorkovsky made an attempt of directly converting money into power, like at a bureau de change – he offered 15 billion roubles for power in Russia. His plan was frustrated by Putin. Some people say, it is not democratic. But did Khodorkovsky act in a democratic way? How were the 15 billion rubles obtained? In general terms, does big money entitle a person to power purchase? The history of Russian oligarchy is essentially about converting money into power. Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky were doing it through mass media, for example, when in 1996 Gusinsky helped Yeltsin win the elections enlisting the services of the establishment-sponsored television channel NTV, it was the direct conversion of a media resource into power.

Earlier in 1994 Alexander Korzhakov, the then Chief of the President’s Security Service, conducted – by Yeltsin’s instructions – the ‘mug in snow’ operation against Gusinsky, so that the oligarchs could understand that authority should not be conflicted with, but paid off (not necessarily with direct finance). So the oligarchs began to finance media to brainwash people by meting out, distorting information, misinforming, launching media attacks as a punishment for public figures, orchestrating public opinion, spin control and fixing elections… For such services Berezovsky even obtained an office in the government – he became deputy secretary of the Security Council and was responsible for the Chechen issues (a glaring absurdity from today’s perspective!).

Berezovsky and Gusinsky believed that Yeltsin’s apointee Vladimir Putin would let them play their games as before. They were baulked in their plans. However, certain agressive representatives of big business persisted in their struggle for power – the inertia of complete license was too strong, the sense of omnipotence struck root. ‘We would beat Yeltsin all the same – while he had been learning to play domino, we had mastered chess’, said Leonid Nevzlin, a businessman and public relations expert. Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s logic was of the same strain: the sense of exclusiveness prompted him to attempt to use financial clout and gain control over the State Duma and the Federation Council, thus becoming the ‘power broker’, de facto leader of the country. That splendid coup was thwarted – Putin’s government wouldn’t play either domino or chess with Khodorkovsky, it simply upturned the table. Some say it wasn’t nice or fair. Perhaps. But it was not fair play on the part of Khodorkovsky in the first place.

Khodorkovsky’s political failure as the failure of converting money into power was logical. Yeltsin depended on the oligarchs, as he had no other ‘point of rest’, being politically and physically infirm, unpopular, and undergoing persistent pressure from the left wing. Contrariwise, Putin is popular; he succeeded in uniting the elite and was able to move away from the oligarchs.

Some political scientists maintain that the restriction of big business power is wrong, as it entails the omnipotent power of State bureaucracy. True, the official powers should be counterbalanced, otherwise the State becomes overpowering (this was Russia’s permanent political bane, but the country needed it because of its size, climate and a number of other factors). But Yeltsin’s immoral big business is not the kind of counterbalance the community needs. While Russia was historically better off unter total power, the oligarchs would retain it, but make it inhuman and anti-national – even more unscrupulous, mercenary and corrupt. State totalitarianism would turn into oligarchal totalitarianism. There was but imitation of democracy under Yeltsin, but if Khodorkovsky could have gained power, the political pseudodemocracy might have turned into oligarchal pseudodemocracy, with its arsenal of manupulative and venal media. The restriction of oligarchal influence on the policy and strategy of the State is necessary. Giving a resolute check to Khodorkovsky’s plans, Putin made him understand that individuals (even very rich ones) cannot dictate the policy to the State.Fifth. Putin proclaimed the foreign policy based on national priorities. Under Yeltsin it was based on absolutely different principles: the first postulate was that Russia should at all costs become the part of civilised world, implying the West; the second was that Russia has no national interests basically different from those of the USA; the third was that Russia should completely reject the use of force in solving its political problems, as it is ‘undemocratic’.

Over the past 10 years we have seen other nations solve their problems by various methods, including, alas, the use of force as, for instance, in Bosnia or in Iraq.

We also realised, that the course of equating Russia’s political interests with those of US or EU is not absolutely correct. Putin agreed with the USA in the crucial issue of fighting terrorism, but he made it clear that our countries’ views on some other issues differ. He is not afraid to say that Russia has inherent interests in the countries of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), even if it may annoy some political parties abroad. However, the practical realisation of Russia’s national interests may be impeded by two factors: the cosmopolitan character of big business and the ‘anational’ mentality of the younger generation of Russians, formed during the past 10 years.

‘Paying taxes is our only duty, and we owe nobody but God and our conscience’, Peter Aven, a business and media tycoon, said in his interview. Yes, but if an individual knows neither God nor conscience? Why should big business detach itself from the rest of the nation? Russia’s big business is essentially cosmopolitan, not to say anti-national.

As for the ‘anational’ mentality, it becomes apparent from the fact that younger people, even those whose major at universities is political science, sometimes question the necessity of Russia’s ‘special attutude’ towards certain issues. ‘Why don’t we just trim ourselves to the US position?’, they ask. The notion of ‘national interests’, as well as patriotism, has been decried as narrow-minded anachronism.

Russian politicians still argue which party to pattern our economy and policy on – Europe or the USA. Oh, but we must pattern them on Russia, the total of its interests! Checking our interests with those of other counrties, of course.

Sixth. Under Putin the country’s controllability was restored, its slow desintegration was stopped. When Yeltsin was in office the national republics fell off the Union, break-away sentiments appeared in the Chechen, Tartar and other autonomous republics, even certain Russian regions began to claim autonomy (let us remember the Urals Republic proposed by the Urals governor Eduard Rossel). This process was slow, but it endangered the country’s integrity. Meanwhile Yeltsin took the ‘gulp as much sovereignty as you can’ stance.

Zbignev Bzhezinsky, a well-known American political scientist, published a map where Russia was divided into three countries: European, Siberian and Far Eastern. That was his tentative project for Russia. Yes, there was a possibility of such an outcome – take the town of Khasavyurt in Dagestan, a part of Russia that was given 5 years’ independence. The danger of disintegration is still looming, although the Center is keen on consolidating the country. Putin lifted the national morale and showed that separatism will not go unpunished. He should beware, though, putting too much pressure on the national republics and divesting them of their rights, as it may cause an outburst of nationalism.

Seventh. Despite all the drawbacks of the present government, V. Putin was able to win back people’s trust for public authority. There is no trace of ‘devilry around the throne’, so glaring in Yeltsin’s time and headed by Boris Berezovsky. Even the liberal journalists, who criticise, sometimes unreservedly, the present government, admit that there was a mafia-like ‘family clan’ around Yeltsin, which held power in the country. True, there are various factions and influential groups, promoting their interests and struggling with each other in today’s administration, but none of these claim to have entire power, to be the only decision-makers.

Some people say V. Putin’s team is not united. Yes, there are controversies in it. But, on the other hand, there is no ‘family’ either. St. Petersburg’s representatives were at first considered more ‘close’ to the President than others, but it was not born out, say, Dmitry Kozak, was dispatched to the Southern Federal District as the President’s plenipotentiary to deal with the Chechen Republic and terrorism. Under V. Putin the ‘office politics’ (the code of relations between officials) became fundamentally different – meritocracy was established.

However, there are serious problems ahead for Putin. He ‘steered the ship about, but has not set a well-defined course for her’.First. The economy grows largely due to the oil price rise. Russia hasn’t begun forming a competitive economy – developing high technologies, launching large-scale target programs, renovating the defense establishments, etc. All these could only be attained with the participation of the state, but it left the economy to its devices. The positive dynamics of Russia’s economy won’t keep, if the oil prices drop.

The economy remains passive: it absorbs enormous sums of money and yields 6-7 percent growth, but Russia keeps selling its staple raw materials and does not work up new foreign markets. There is no growth in mechanical engineering exports, nor in high tech production. However, the competitive strength of an economy is determined by these two factors, and not by raw materials, but by finished goods. So far Russia’s economy has not been set for efficiency, no innovative breakthrough has been made.

Second. The situation in Chechnya is much more serious than it may seem, and the Chechen leader Ahmad Kadyrov’s assassination is a heavy blow to the peace in this region. Though there is no war in the classic sense there, as separatists have no power to ‘fight on fronts’, Chechnya is pervaded with separatist and terrorist agents. Raids and acts of terrorism still obtain in the region, and even spread to the country at large.

Third. Vladimir Putin has not yet created an efficient state machine. For example, the events in Beslan on September 1-3 2004, when more than 4,000 children and teachers were held hostage, prove the low efficacy of security service. Under B.Yeltsin the KGB was being consistently wrecked under pretence of fighting communism (the consequences of this act are not yet fully overcome). Yet not one democratic state could manage without strong security services, what was really needed is to reform the former Soviet intelligence.

Fourth. Russia should vindicate its positions in foreign policy with more firmness. American politicians spoke to me (Alexey Pushkov) about the surprise Russia’s refusal to back the war in Iraq caused with the US administration. Why did Russia give an impression that it could be counted on in any matter, or that it shouldn’t be reckoned with? Because it had settled for anything the USA was doing, be it the withdrawal from the Anti-Missile Defence Treaty (the Russian government’s comment: ‘a deplorable error’) or the second round of the NATO expansion. The US administration overestimated its influence on Moscow, but it was Russia who gave cause for this, adopting a policy too ‘comfortable’ for the USA.

Unfortunately, many features of Yeltsin’s administration devolved on that of Putin. The lack of publicity in legislature is one of them. We are faced with political reforms, which come as if out of the blue – nobody has taken the trouble to explain their essence and prove their necessity. This is said to be the traditional Russian authoritarian style of administration. But bad traditions should be changed, unless the government is willing to stand aloof from its people.

The main dangers impending over Putin’s administration are as follows.

The first is the situation in Chechnya. The efficiency of Putin’s policy largely depends on his ability to settle the Chechen conflict. If the ‘vertical of power’ built by him does not yield fruit in that region, he will fail to convince the country in the necessity of exerting control. It is precisely the issue of Chechnya that will be the touchstone of Putin’s policy, both in Russia and internationally. The Chechen war and terror became Putin’s gravest challenges, which demand the consolidation of power, strengthening of the State, and in some cases, turning the screw. But if the screws are tight, and the vehicle does not move, the question of the adequacy of such a policy will arise.

The second danger (more prominent during his second term in office) is the appearance of consolidated opposition. It includes the liberal politicians who lost the election in the Duma, but have a solid support of big business, their own financial resources, and a substantial backing from abroad. They are eager to score political points using the government’s mistakes. For example, against the logic of their liberal market views, they are attacking the monetisation of perquisites for pensioners. They are doing it, because the authority is vulnerable in this poorely prepared reform. The next power standing in opposition to Putin is the ‘exiled’ oligarchs. Berezovsky, Gusinsky, Nevzlin are people with resources, and have connections in the West. Berezovsky is quite frank in saying that his principal goal is to weaken Putin’s regime. Then, the government is opposed by certain liberal media (which include several central TV channels of Russia), especially their aggressive part backed by the oppositional big business. A part of national and regional elite, displeased at the decision that regional governors be appointed by the President (and apprehending the restoration of the unitarian state), may also join the opposition. A part of liberal intelligentsia and the communists joining the liberals on certain points also swing against the administration. Finally, the anti-Russian and anti-Putin forces in the West are also opposed to Putin. All the mentioned forces are, however, largely outnumbered by Putin’s supporters (in Russia the ratio is about one to ten). Nevertheless, they should be reckoned with.

Putin has few propagandists of his ideas and proposals. He himself has to explain his home and foreign policy, the ideas of his political reforms. His press secretaries and information services keep silence, although it is their duty to compete with the huge bulk of anti-Putin propaganda. The system lacks people with active ideological and political thinking, capable of supporting its plans and decisions. And this is in the face of strong opposition, nostalgic for Yeltsin’s Russia – weak, docile, corrupt, and disintegrating.

However, if the efficiency of administration rises, the economy grows, the opposition will have to bear Putin’s ‘authoritarian liberalism’. Conversely, if there are no tangible results, he will be accused of sacrificing democracy. Putin must prove that his model is efficient.

The period of authoritarian development is inevitable. The liberals condemn Putin’s policy as restoration, but restoration is a normal practice for any country after a sharp ‘side slip’. If a nation loses capacity for correcting its ‘side slips’, it may, like a car, roll over at a sharp turn of history. Restoration is the nation’s adaptation to new conditions, its self-regulation, aligning a car after a drastic side slip.

Helen Shelestiuk (info@translatus.ru)

The author was born and lives in Russia, Chelyabinsk.

Interpreter, translator, Professor of Chelyabinsk State University.Intends to publish an ezine covering economic, political and cultural news of Russia.

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