Editor’s note: The following essay was completed for publication before the terrorist slaughter in Beslan in early September.
The news from Russia has been decidedly grim. Most accounts begin with the prosecutorial assault on the oil giant Yukos and its founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the politically ambitious “oligarch” who is now on trial in Moscow on charges of fraud after almost a year in jail. But they hardly end there.
To many, the Yukos case raises the specter of a historic reversal. If, in the early 1990’s, Boris Yeltsin led a revolution that oversaw the dismantling of state ownership of the economy, now the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin appears to be reextending its control over industry. Some observers even fear an across-the-board renationalization of the country’s largest private firms. Possible signs of this include the recent abrupt halt in the breakup and sale of the government-owned electricity monopoly, UES, and the announced intention of the state to increase its majority stake in the natural-gas behemoth Gazprom.
The rule of law in Russia has also suffered grievously in the prosecution of Khodorkovsky. A progressive criminal-procedure code, adopted with great fanfare at the end of 2001, has been twisted to the breaking point. Irregularities in the proceedings—including blatant violations of the rules of pretrial detention, bail, and lawyer-client privilege—have undermined public confidence in the independence of judges. Adding further to the impression of legal regression are two trials for espionage that have been similarly rife with procedural violations.
Of perhaps even greater concern than all this is the mounting pressure to curtail political liberties. In the Yukos affair, the Kremlin has seemed less intent on recovering billions of allegedly lost tax revenues than on scaring off the captains of post-Soviet industry from participation in national politics. Elsewhere, freedom of political speech has been restricted as the state has consolidated its grip over the four national television channels and shut down some of the most outspoken news and entertainment programs. Putin’s 72-percent landslide in the presidential elections this past March, following the resounding triumph of the pro-Putin party in parliamentary elections last December, has been widely attributed to manipulation of public opinion by the state-controlled media.
Encroachments on freedom of expression have been matched by restrictions on freedom of assembly. No sooner did the new Duma convene than it passed a law barring political demonstrations in central locations or close to government buildings. In his lengthy state-of-the-nation address in May, Putin lashed out at unnamed non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) whose “sole interest,” he declared, was to serve “dubious group and commercial interests” at the expense of the public good. (There are 350,0000 registered NGO’s in Russia today.)
Accompanying these statist currents at home has been a more assertive posture abroad. Among other things, the Kremlin has insisted on keeping or has let its troops linger overlong in bases outside Russia from which it had previously agreed to withdraw. The savage war in Chechnya continues to grind forward, with daily violations of human rights by federal troops attempting to suppress an ongoing Islamic insurgency. The Kremlin has denounced the American invasion of Iraq and has been providing nuclear technology and fuel to Iran.
Taken together, these developments would indeed seem to betoken a major turnabout from the revolutionary achievements of the 1990’s. Increasingly, there is talk in the Russian air of a “Soviet restoration.” This prospect, now a worry of Russian human-rights activists and Putin’s political opponents on the Right and the Left, is also beginning to be entertained by expert opinion and many journalists in the West. Is it a serious possibility?
Great revolutions are almost invariably followed by a successful or at least attempted “restoration” of some sort. It is entirely natural that formerly dominant elites should seek to stage a comeback and regain their lost perquisites and power. Writing about the French revolution, Tocqueville observed how “many of the laws and administrative methods that were suppressed in 1789 reappeared a few years later, much as some rivers after going underground re-emerge at another point, in new surroundings.” In Russia today, we are observing in part a similar geological process. The cadres that effectively owned the USSR’s politics and economy—the law-enforcement functionaries, the bureaucrats from the major economic ministries, and the KGB officers who still fill the top and middle ranks of the security services—have advanced under Putin to the forefront of national decisionmaking.
Yet, as with all successful restorations, one must be careful not to confuse broad-based backward shifts with a putsch or a counterrevolution initiated from above. The upper levels of political life in today’s Russia are heavily influenced by popular sentiment. As public-opinion polls attest, that sentiment has shifted—away from the desire to nullify the ancien régime in every respect and toward a wish to recover some of its traditional symbols, institutions, and policies. After a decade of dizzying change, there is an intense longing among Russians for predictability and the comforts of the familiar. Thus, in one recent nationwide survey asking what Russians expected from “a president of their choice,” the two top replies were “securing a fair distribution of income in the interests of common people” and “strengthening of law and order.”
These attitudes have translated into broad approval of Putin’s efforts to curtail the often brazen presence of the “oligarchs” in Russian political life (including the near-ownership of the previous Duma by the Khodorkovsky-led oil lobby). The same attitudes undergird the tighter control being exercised by the center over the provinces, which are perceived by most Russians as little more than the personal fiefdoms of corrupt and dictatorial governors. Above all, such attitudes fortify the resolve of those pressing for more effective enforcement of the laws, for a secure public order, and for greater protection of the weak and the poor.
Under these circumstances—and, as we shall see, with the economy growing at its fastest pace in 40 years—it would have been strange if Putin’s widely publicized moves had not made him immensely popular. Manipulation of the media and other electoral shenanigans were hardly required in order to secure his lopsided triumph at the polls.
But if what is unfolding in Russia today is indeed some sort of popular restoration, it is a most peculiar one. For millions of Russians, Putin has come to embody not a return to the bad old days but a balance, precarious though it may be, between the new and the old. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, Putin was never a high-level Communist-party functionary. A lieutenant colonel in the KGB’s foreign-intelligence directorate, he resigned in the wake of the attempted putsch by Communist hardliners in August 1991. Thereafter he let his party membership lapse and went on to serve under Anatoly Sobchak, the first elected mayor of the renamed St. Petersburg and one of Russia’s most radical and passionate anti-Communists.
To be sure, Putin himself is hardly governing as Sobchak would have done; the combination is more subtle and even contradictory than that. He has, for instance, prodded the Duma to adopt a new national anthem, set to the music of the old Soviet one; among his other public acts, he has presided over the unveiling of a plaque to Yuri Andropov, the longtime KGB chairman and, briefly, general secretary of the Communist party. At the same time, however, he has deplored the “totalitarian regime that brought the country to a national catastrophe” and told an interviewer that “we are obliged to remember everything negative, everything horrible that we encountered in the 20th century. We have paid a very great price for this. Millions of people died in the camps.”
This mixture of attitudes extends beyond symbols and words into the realm of policy, which is where one must really look to understand the direction in which Russia is moving. The simplest way to proceed is by reference to the four cornerstones on which Boris Yeltsin sought to build a post-Soviet Russia.
First and foremost is what might be called the de-Bolshevization of society—the very area in which Putin’s transgressions have been most conspicuous. Early in his first term in office, Putin launched a concerted effort to tame the mass media, specifically by attacking the media empire of Vladimir Gusinsky. The move, dressed up as a lawsuit against the magnate’s holding company by a group of lenders and shareholders, was clearly designed as political payback for the way in which Gusinsky had deployed his outlets, particularly the NTV network, in support of the left-of-center nationalist opposition in the December 1999 Duma elections. NTV’s “repossession” by the state-owned Gazprom abruptly halted most critical news coverage of the Kremlin, and particularly of the dirty war in Chechnya. There followed the cancellation of the immensely popular satirical show Kukly (“Puppets”), which for six years had skewered leading politicians, especially the president, his ministers, and top aides. The other three national networks, already state-owned, quickly trimmed their broadcasts to suit the Kremlin’s sensibilities.
This is an unhappy story, but one must nevertheless add a number of important qualifications. First, even when subjugated to the will of the state, Russian television today is a far cry from what it was in the Soviet era, when the agitation-and-propaganda department of the Communist party’s Central Committee exercised absolute control over the airwaves. Today, the nightly news broadcasts invariably lead off with stories of violent crime (with terrorism now added to the mix), poverty, corruption, incompetence, and other instances of general malfeasance by local (if not national) officials.
Second, unlike television, the print media are free. Standing in front of a newspaper kiosk in Moscow, anyone with enough Russian to make out the newspaper headlines will be exposed to the entire spectrum of opinion, from Konservator (“Conservative”) on the right to the shrill nationalist-leftist, anti-Semitic Zavtra (“Tomorrow”), which almost invariably carries anti-Putin cartoons of the most vulgar and scurrilous kind. Among those most critical are the quintessential publications of the intelligentsia: the Right-liberal weeklies Novoe Vremia (“New Times”), Moskovskie Novosti (“Moscow News”), and the left-wing Novaya Gazeta (“New Gazette”).
Finally, to grasp the real state of Russian journalism one must look beyond the country’s capital city. As Russia moves further and further away from the unitary and rigidly centralized state built by Stalin, it is more and more becoming a land of disparate regions. In addition to the four Moscow-based television networks, there are 750 broadcast or cable stations, an average of eight for each of the country’s 89 regions. Almost 200 of these local stations are private, with the remainder owned or subsidized to various degrees by regional governments. Similarly, 7,000 of the country’s 35,000 local newspapers and magazines are in private hands. An example is the Provintsiya media conglomerate, owned by a single entrepreneur, which publishes 30 newspapers in 29 regions. To this multiplicity of information channels we might also add the Internet, which already reaches some 14 to 21 million people, is even harder to control, and is expanding by leaps and bounds.
If today’s media cannot be compared to what prevailed in the Soviet era, the same is true of electoral politics. In fact, it is there, despite the concern within Russia and abroad over a growing “democratic deficit,” that the totalitarian past is being steadily repudiated.
Under Yeltsin, the old Communist party re-emerged as the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), a hardline, anti-Semitic, and Stalin-worshipping organization; under Putin, it began its journey into the dustbin of history. From 40 percent of the national vote in the presidential runoff election in 1996, and 25 percent of the party-list vote in the December 1999 Duma balloting, the KPRF’s share was reduced to 12 percentage points last December. Polls this past summer showed the party’s sharp downward trajectory continuing. Although the credit belongs to Russian voters, the success of the Kremlin’s policies has undoubtedly contributed to the party’s decline.
The defeat of the KPRF at the ballot box points to the continuing significance of freely contested elections in Putin’s Russia. Following their most recent debacle at the polls, the Communists accused the Kremlin of engaging in “black PR,” echoing other opposition parties that have likewise pointed to media manipulation and election “irregularities.” But these irregularities, some of them well-documented, have been perpetrated overwhelmingly by local authorities. In the last presidential race, election posters and leaflets of all candidates were mounted on billboards and handed out house to house across Russia. The names of all of Putin’s rivals were on the ballot, and people were free to vote for the candidate of their choice. In the end, 68 million voters did so, and 15 million of these voted for Putin’s rivals. Asked if they had enjoyed the opportunity to express their position freely, 87 percent answered in the affirmative. Meanwhile, in the provinces, self-rule continues to solidify; voters re-elect or retire governors based largely on the state of the local economy, and neither incumbency nor the support of the Kremlin has proved to be a guarantee against defeat at the polls.
As for the charge of media manipulation, we have already seen that the federal government’s control of television is not absolute. Indeed, in the month preceding the most recent presidential election, the five candidates vying with Putin enjoyed a total of 65 hours on the three state-owned national television networks and an equivalent amount of exposure on state-owned radio. Roughly equal access is the rule at the regional and local level as well. Political debate and political advertising remain uncensored, and can be freewheeling in the extreme. In the words of a popular political weekly, the nationally televised debates of the opposition candidates amounted to telling millions of Russians “three times a week that Putin is leading the nation in the wrong direction.” One candidate, making use of free airtime on a national television network, ran a commercial declaring: “Enough lying, enough pseudo-reforms, enough thieving.” These are hardly the slogans of a muzzled or intimidated opposition.
In brief, while Putin’s sins against political and civil liberty have distorted the face of the Russian polity, thus far they have not made it unrecognizable.
A second cornerstone of Russia’s anti-Communist revolution was the privatization of the economy. In this arena, the assault on Yukos may well signal a more general counterattack, aimed at reclaiming at least some of the economy’s “commanding heights” for the state. A neo-corporatist ideology seems to have emerged within both the Kremlin and the Duma. Its advocates tolerate large private enterprises, but only on condition of their total subservience to the state’s political and economic agendas. Private control of extractive industries, now proclaimed “national patrimony,” is under especially severe scrutiny, and foreign ownership or even co-ownership of such resources has become a neuralgic issue. Russia’s enormously lucrative oil industry, in which the state’s share is now smaller than anywhere else in the world save the United States and Kazakhstan, may be only the first target in a wider pullback.
But once again the picture is in need of qualification and nuance. Even as it was tightening the screws on Yukos, the government announced in August that it would sell its entire stake in Russia’s largest oil company, Lukoil; the buyer may well turn out to be a foreign company, with Houston-based ConocoPhillips among the top contenders. Last year, the Kremlin approved the $7 billion acquisition of half of another Russian oil giant, TNK, by British Petroleum.
Meanwhile, in economic matters other than those involving the “commanding heights,” it would be hard to find many countries with policies as favorable to business as Putin’s Russia. Increasingly freed from the paralyzing resistance of the Communist-led opposition in the Duma, the Kremlin has pushed through many key measures that the opposition had succeeded in scuttling in the late Yeltsin era. These include legislation permitting the private ownership and sale of land for the first time since 1917; the breakup of the state electricity monopoly and the sale of its generating assets (a move, as we have seen, now stalled); and partial privatization of the mandatory payroll deduction for workers’ pensions, a portion of which is now considered individual property that may be invested in private mutual funds.
From the beginning of the Putin era, tax relief appears to have been a top priority of the Kremlin. Having appointed an acolyte of the free-market theorist Friedrich Hayek as his personal economic adviser, the president has moved to slash taxes across the board. The income tax was pared to 13 percent and the corporate tax to 24 percent; the sales tax was eliminated; and the Kremlin began pushing for a sharp cut in the unified social tax, a move calculated to save private entrepreneurs an estimated $10 billion a year.
These cuts, which have given Russia some of the lowest marginal tax rates in the world, have been supplemented by a tight lid on government spending. Immediately after his re-election, Putin cut the number of ministries and federal agencies from 30 to 17, trimming the size of the federal bureaucratic workforce by 20 percent.
The fruits of these policies, helped along handsomely by soaring world oil prices, have been nothing short of remarkable. Since 1999, GDP has grown by 38 percent; labor productivity is up by over 50 percent; real disposable income has more than doubled; the poverty rate has fallen by a third; and unemployment has decreased by 19 percent. Russia today enjoys record budget surpluses, a strong ruble, diminishing inflation, and an improved debt rating. One of the most telling indicators of all can be found in agriculture, a sector that had been systematically destroyed by six decades of collectivization. Today, for the first time in a half-century, Russia has gone from being the world’s largest importer of grain to a net exporter.
No less stark a change, and of unsurpassed significance for both Russia and the world at large, is the country’s continuing demilitarization—the third cornerstone of post-Communist Russia. Putin’s Kremlin has neither reversed nor slowed the dismantling of the single military asset that justified the USSR’s claim to superpower status: its strategic nuclear forces. Notwithstanding last year’s spate of tests of intercontinental missiles, all of them designed to bolster patriotic pride and some of them embarrassingly unsuccessful, from the beginning Putin has urged the United States to agree to deeper cutbacks in nuclear warheads than even the Bush administration has been prepared to accept. In the end, in a three-page agreement whose very brevity stands in contrast to the heavy tomes of previous treaties, Moscow has undertaken to shrink its strategic arsenal to no more than 2,200 warheads by 2012, down from 10,000 at the end of the Soviet era.
Along the same lines, Putin has conspicuously refrained from changing the Yeltsin-engineered decline in military manpower from around 4 million to slightly more than 1 million men under arms. To the contrary: several months into his first term, the Kremlin announced plans to slash the armed forces by at least an additional 350,000 men. This reduction is part and parcel of reforms intended to shorten the duration of compulsory service and ultimately to switch to an all-volunteer force. Although the plan has been delayed and diluted in the face of fierce resistance from the military, Putin nevertheless featured it prominently in his most recent state-of-the-nation address, strongly suggesting it will receive renewed impetus in the months ahead.
Most significantly, Putin has followed the lead of his predecessor in trimming Russia’s massive defense outlays. Yeltsin, after cutting military expenditure by 90 percent in 1992, then maintained it at a level of no more than 3 percent of GDP for the next seven years (down from a staggering 30 percent of GDP in the Soviet period). It is to this radically reduced conception of the military to which Putin has basically adhered.
Even in 2003, a year the Russian treasury was flush with tax receipts, military spending remained somewhere between 2.8 and 3.7 percent of GDP. Though this year’s expenditures are set to rise, possibly to as much as 4.6 percent, Putin continues to reject calls to invest the country’s swelling reserves in military power, recognizing, as he recently put it, that these liberated resources have “provided the basic foundation for our economic development.”
In this as in so much else, Putin’s approach reflects a national consensus. Asked in a poll last fall how Russia could best assert its place in the world, 46 percent of respondents named “becoming more competitive economically,” while only 21 percent mentioned “maintaining and rebuilding a strong military.” In today’s Russia, there is hardly a groundswell of support for reconstituting the mighty Red Army of yore.
The fourth and final cornerstone of the post-Soviet revolution was a decisive shift in foreign policy. Though Russia has lately become more assertive—occasionally even truculent—on the world stage, the basic pro-Western direction established in the Yeltsin era remains unchanged, and in some respects has become more profoundly established.
To be sure, in dealing with the “near abroad”—the countries on its borders that constituted the former USSR—Russia has become much more forceful about what it regards as its national interests. Among other things, it has violated an agreement with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to withdraw its troops from the tiny “Trans-Dniester Republic” in Moldova. It refuses to evacuate bases in Georgia, defying the demands of the Georgian government. It continues to maintain an armed presence in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Russia has made it plain that it is determined to remain a regional superpower, backing its economic dominance with overwhelming military preponderance.
But this posture should not be misunderstood as a desire for “reunification” with any of the former Soviet republics. Even when a republic has been keen on rejoining Russia, as is the case with poverty-stricken Belarus under the erratic dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko, Moscow has continued to demur. Nostalgia for the glory of the USSR may be plentiful among Russians, but, as with support for military spending, the polls consistently show only a small fraction wishing to restore the Soviet Union.
When one looks further afield, at relations with the United States, the change toward a pro-Western stance is even more evident. Russia’s continuing provision of nuclear technology to Iran, though highly disturbing, is motivated more by commercial than by ideological interests. And Putin’s strong opposition to U.S. intervention in Iraq hardly reflects an across-the-board hostility to American interests. Nothing illustrates this better than Russia’s response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Within days, Putin elevated U.S.-Russian cooperation to a level never before conceivable. Overruling his own defense and foreign ministers, and ignoring howls of protests from the nationalist Left, he took steps to support the exercise of American power in Russia’s own backyard, including permission for NATO and U.S. planes to fly over Russian and former Soviet territory. He has acquiesced in the stationing of U.S. and NATO troops on former Soviet bases in Central Asia, and initiated an unprecedented sharing of intelligence between Russian and Western secret services.
In all these actions, the Kremlin has once more been in synch with public opinion. Like Putin, huge majorities of Russians consistently opposed U.S. intervention in Iraq. But the same Russian majorities, undoubtedly influenced by their country’s painful encounters with Islamic violence emanating from Chechnya, firmly support an anti-terrorism partnership with the United States. A February 2004 Pew survey found 73 percent of Russians favoring the “U.S.-led war on terrorism” and only 20 percent opposing. Only a third of Russians agreed that the U.S. has been “overreacting to terrorism.” These numbers reveal a public more supportive of the U.S. than its counterparts in Germany, France, or even Great Britain.
Talk of a “Soviet restoration” is thus, at this juncture, wildly overblown. A more pertinent question is whether Russia is on a path toward some form of authoritarianism.
The Putin regime has clearly shown a readiness to sacrifice some—by no means all—newly won liberties to obtain continuity and stability. But, although its policies are in many instances informed by popular nostalgia for the past, they do not seem to be inspired by Communist ideology, let alone to be guided by it. We still do not know whether its peculiar style of power will prove to be ephemeral, a product of a remarkable congruence between the vision of one man and a fleeting national mood, or something more lasting—and, if the latter, what that something will be. After 2008, at the close of Putin’s second term, will Russia revert to the no-holds-barred, ideologically polarized, and raucously partisan politics of the 1990’s, or will it slide toward a new form of highly centralized control? At this point it is impossible to say.
Between those two extremes, in any event, a third possibility seems quite plausible—namely, that Putin will have succeeded in ushering in a political and economic arrangement that is more enduring, more stable, and more organic than what has gone before. If so, Russia’s future development may proceed according to the “East Asian” model, in which an authoritarian but highly successful “modernizing” regime (think of South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand in the 1950’s through the 1980’s) eventually produces a middle class large enough and strong enough to bring into being a Western-style democracy.
Another, not unrelated possibility would be the emergence of a one-party democracy, as in Japan, Italy until the 1990’s, post-apartheid South Africa, or, in a more corrupt and violent incarnation, Mexico prior to Vincente Fox. In such systems, there is little in the way of direct grassroots influence on policy-making at the national level, and the final disposition of the legislature, dominated by one party, is never in doubt. Yet there is genuine competition of elites within the ruling party, the press remains free, basic civil and political liberties are preserved, and opposition parties, although firmly and seemingly permanently outside the perimeter of real power, can campaign freely, are elected to parliament in non-threatening numbers, and win local mayoral and gubernatorial elections.
Such a model might prove attractive to a Russian public weary of bitterly contested visions of their country’s future and, after decades of undergoing the politicization of every aspect of life, eager to attend to their private affairs. Would it be entirely surprising if the Russian people chose to take a long holiday from national politics, leaving this largely to the elites, while keeping local politics lively and competitive?
But again, it is too soon to say. Apart from the battles of the 1990’s, the Russian political temperament has never been tested by periods of peaceful and free choices. We shall have to wait patiently until, like other great revolutions before it, Russia’s unfolds and reveals its final destination. All we can say today is that, severely handicapped though it is by its past, and with all the backslidings and shortcomings of the present, Russia’s epochal experiment in liberty, popular self-rule, and non-belligerency is still far from over.
—August 27, 2004
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