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The Eternal Putin


It might be tempting to pin all of the blame for the West’s thorny relationship with Russia on one man. But Vladimir Putin is more a product of Russia’s political landscape than its architect.

© REUTERS/Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Pool

The Russian parliamentary elections of September 18, 2016, despite wide-spread signs of fraud, clearly showed that the protests that threatened President Vladimir Putin in 2011-12 have completely run out of steam. Once again, the same four parties that secured the Duma back in 2007 and 2011 retained control of the parliament, while Putin’s United Russia party won a constitutional majority of 343 deputies out of 450. Today’s Russian party system resembles that of the former East Germany, which Putin watched collapse as the KGB resident in Dresden.

How did Putin hijack Russian politics so completely, and why are there so few signs of any appetite for change in the country he has governed for 15 years? For one thing, the opposition is not trusted – the very people who are now trying to take on Putin prepared Russia’s political system for his rise. In fact, even though Putin likes to contrast Russia today with the country’s experience in the 1990s and early 2000s, there is  much more continuity between these two periods than change.

Putin was deeply rooted in the political elite that emerged in Russia in the “reformist” years: He began his political career alongside Anatoly Sobchak, a democratically elected St. Petersburg mayor. It was Boris Yeltsin who appointed Putin to serve as the director of the FSB, the KGB’s main successor. There were oligarchs, most importantly Boris Berezovsky, who supported his candidacy as Yeltsin’s successor. His enormous presidential powers today are grounded in the super-presidential constitution drafted in 1993 by Sergey Shakhray and Viktor Sheinis, two outspoken pro-democracy politicians.

But beyond that, there were important economic, political, and social reasons for Putin’s ascent as a “natural” leader of the country, and all of them were laid in the 1990s – and those who occupied senior positions in the bureaucratic hierarchy at the time have no reason to complain about the country’s adoption of Putinism as its basic political and economic doctrine today.

Economic Foundations

Those who connect Putin’s success with the economic history of modern Russia emphasize the importance of the devastation wrought by the early market reforms. The main argument is that by the end of the 1990s Russians had become exhausted with the decline in living standards, rapid inflation, constant devaluation of the ruble, growing unemployment, and surging income inequality. Andrey Illarionov, a respected economist who served for several years as Putin’s economic advisor, blames the reformers of the 1990s for neglecting the people’s needs and conducting the reforms in a way that caused a 35 percent economic contraction, pushed close to half of all citizens below the poverty line, and created an oligarchic economic structure. All this produced a desire for a more “organized” economic environment.

This might be true – but there is another trend that stood at the core of the market reforms of the 1990s, and was much more connected to Putin’s takeover: the country’s privatization program.

The privatization of state-owned assets in the 1990s was often called “piratization,” with investors paying extremely low prices for Soviet-built enterprises. Whether or not this process was just, new owners secured enormous competitive advantages vis-à-vis any greenfield investors that might be interested in developing new businesses in Russia. Growth since then has generally come from sectors barely touched by the privatization movement: telecoms and internet providers, financial services and banking, retail trade and logistics, personnel services, etc. – but not from the industrial core of the Russian economy. In the 2000s, the privatized companies were not even able to match Soviet-era levels of natural gas and oil production.

All of this completely distorted the Russian economy: the main initiatives undertaken by the new owners of Russia’s core assets were not aimed at their development, but rather at “restructuring” them into different holdings and selling them off at the heights of stock market fluctuations, only to buy them back during crises. Redistribution rather than development became an obsession of post-privatization Russia and a foundation for the power of the state, which was heavily engaged in buying and selling assets or enforcing their redistribution through nominal legal moves. During the 2000s less than 12 percent of all criminal investigations against entrepreneurs were brought to the courts since the companies either agreed to bribe officials or were overtaken by those who had orchestrated their prosecution. This “redistributive economy” paved the way for the “redistributive state” that came into being in the 2000s when market reforms in general were designed less to overcome the grip of the bureaucracy and more to improve its flexibility and effectiveness.

Therefore, Russia’s economy was and is the ultimate breeding ground for Putin’s authoritarianism: all the major Russian companies are either operating as agents of the state or are entwined in the state-led economy; the population is highly dependent on the state budget, which is turn depends heavily on the primary industries; in a redistributive economy the power of the state apparatus tends to expand; and this structure, first invented on the federal level, has been replicated in the regions. Such a system became the first pillar of Putinism in the 1990s.

Tactics and Ideology

Many Russian democrats (so-called and real ones) and their sympathizers in Western countries attest that a liberal democratic order was nearly complete in Russia in the early 2000s and was later dismantled by Putin and his ex-KGB aides. This is incorrect for several reasons.

The most democratic Russian elections of the past quarter century actually occurred not in Russia, but rather in the Soviet Union. Democracy implies a peaceful transition of power from one person or party to another through a fair election process. Such a transition occurred in Russia only once, in 1990-91, when the Communist elite was defeated in first parliamentary and later presidential elections; since 1992, the ruling party or leader has not been defeated. The parliament has been effectively controlled by a pro-Kremlin party or coalition since 1993, and the presidents have changed only through succession appointments camouflaged by electoral processes.

It was not the autocratic Putin who launched an attack against the elected legislature, but democratic Boris Yeltsin. Likewise, it was not the intelligence services that drafted the 1993 constitution, but liberal-minded lawyers. All of these efforts resulted in a profound neglect of popular representation and legislative power, and – more importantly – a solidification of a sort of “no alternative” principle. Democratic leaders who backed Yeltsin’s bid in 1996 called on people to “vote your heart,” degrading the role of thoughtful choice in politics. There can be no doubt that this election shaped the political culture of Russia well into the 2000s.

Moreover, the ideas actively criticized by Russian liberals today have their roots in the 1990s. Putin’s pursuit of a traditional “national concept” comes from Yeltsin’s efforts to draft a Russian “national ideology” in 1994. The 1990s also saw the revival of the Russian Orthodox church, which the state actively supported. By the mid-1990s cooperation between state and church bureaucracies had become so strong that special permissions were issued by local authorities allowing businesses to funnel money into religious charities in lieu of local tax payments. This kind of policy was designed not only to make people less critical of the divinely rooted state, but also to solidify a sense of historical continuity between a new democratic Russia and its old imperial incarnation.

This sense of continuity became a powerful means of transforming Russian society in the 2000s and was used for at least two different objectives. On the one hand, the very idea of praising the past has turned into a deep negligence for the future – the very idea of stability grows from an assumption that the basic features of Russian society are sound, so there is no need to look for something more contemporary. At the same time, as Russia never was a democratic nation, praise for its history places Putin in a pantheon of similar autocrats. In the 1990s, Peter the Great and Stolypin were honored; in the 2010s it was Ivan the Terrible and Stalin.

Imperial Policies

Putin is often accused of both undermining the Russia’s fragile federalism and expanding its sphere of influence further into the post-Soviet space, using not only economic pressure but also hard military power. But even here, the origins of these developments stretch back to trends that began in the 1990s.

Russia continues to resist local self-determination and aggressively implemented imperial policies in the post-Soviet space. In 1992, a bloody conflict erupted in Moldova, where the Russian military had a strong presence. The conflict resulted in a breakaway puppet state, the Transnistrian Moldovan Republic, that Russia never formally recognized but has supported ever since. In 1992-93, an even more violent conflict plagued the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where Russia once again acted formally as a mediator but actually played an active part in the struggle; the result was Tbilisi’s effective loss of control over both territories. The Russian policy vis-à-vis the post-Soviet states was called a “doctrine of managed instability” long before Putin took over.

As early as the 1990s, Russia experimented with cutting natural gas transit from Turkmenistan to Ukraine in an attempt to prevent new oil and gas pipelines from being built in the South Caucasus. And Moscow has been laying the groundwork for a pro-Russian upheaval in Crimea and the Donbass for some time, supporting pro-Russian Crimean activists since 1994. Contrary to its own rules, the Russian government dispersed hundreds of thousands if not millions of Russian passports to the residents of Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, and some other parts of Ukraine, building a foundation for hostile action against its neighbors decades before these actions turned into real conflict.

Further afield, two new distinctive features of current Russian foreign policy emerged in the 1990s: the country’s support for various rogue – but presumably friendly – regimes, even at the expense of Russia’s relationships with major partners; and its “pivot to the East,” paying special attention to China as a new strategic ally. Russia openly supported Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia from 1993 onward even as it undertook a bloody war in the Balkans. Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov famously turned his plane back to Moscow while en route to Washington when he learned of the impending NATO strikes on Belgrade in March 1999. Russia later ordered its troops to move into the northern regions of Kosovo, coming quite close to open engagement with Western forces in the former Yugoslavia. The same Primakov, also serving as Russia’s foreign minister in the mid-1990s, produced a new strategic doctrine based on supposedly strong historical connections between China, Russia, and India, declaring the “Beijing-Delhi-Moscow axis” to be the principal foundation for a “non-Western dominated world of the 21st century.” In the late 1990s, Beijing became the premier non-European destination for official Russian state visits.

There is thus nothing new in Putin’s unwavering support for autocrats of various stripes, whether old friends of the USSR like the late Fidel Castro of Cuba and Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya or newer friends like Bashar al-Assad of Syria. The Russian leaders of the 2000s were hardly original in their search for allies outside the Western world – they long ago reached the conclusion that democratic nations are bad partners when it comes to strengthening the government’s grip over Russian society.

Historical Deadend

Looking at today’s Russia, it is too easy to believe that the government is shaped by a single personality – that is, that the situation will change when Putin is no longer in charge. This is mistaken; the end of the Putin era may not be the end of Putin’s Russia. What the world faces today is not Putin’s creation, but rather the only kind of Russia that could have arisen from the former Soviet Union and the Russian Empire before that. The rise of an economy based on the absence of competition and innovation was as natural as the imperial revival and “power vertical.” Even the strong pro-democracy movement of the 1980s and 1990s lacked the power to change the nature of Russian society and Russian social attitudes – and Russian elites were able to restore patterns and structures that they had used for decades and centuries.

The dramatic social revolution that ended the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, however unfinished it may seem, was the result of a huge wave of mass protests, which included a majority of the educated and self-made urban class. Since then, the greatest success of economic and social change is that is has become easy for people to join the free world one by one, or, in the words of Zygmunt Bauman, to find an “individual solution to systemic contradictions.” The freedom of movement that was thought of as a guarantee of change actually prevented it – more than six million self-made Russians emigrated, leaving the oligarchs and the bureaucrats to manage each other as well as the unorganized masses. By giving money to the former and power to the latter, Russian reformers led their country into a historical deadend without any recipe for escape.

Today’s Russia is not Putin alone. It is a system that evolved in a single direction since the fall of the Soviet Union and one that will be extremely difficult to transform – especially for Western politicians, who have failed to recognize the path Russia has been on for decades.