Assessing the “Accidental Autocrat”

Will Putin seek a third term? The question comes up often in the Russian and Western press. The speculation will only intensify as 2008 approaches. For Putin to stay changes to the Russian Constitution are required. As Kommersant notes, the voices calling for him to remain in office are already starting. In July, the pro-Russia Chechen parliament passed a resolution calling for the Constitution be changed to allow for a third term. Earlier this month Chechen President Alu Alkhanov told Interfax that “the country and the nation” need Putin even though he agreed that Putin did not want a third term. In St. Petersburg, a civil organization called “Patriots of Petersburg” has begun a campaign to collect signatures to get the Constitution changed. Petersburg governor and strong Putin ally Valentina Matviyenko has voiced her support as has legislator Igor Rimmer for a third term. All seem to be unanimous as to the reason why Putin should continue: stability.

Putin 3.0, therefore, might not be entirely up to him. His staying or going might be the result of the very system the man has fostered irrespective of his personal ambitions. The very house that Putin rebuilt is also what gives those calling for a third term under the slogan of stability do have a strong case. Russia has more or less reached a position of economic and political stability under Putin. Many Russian politicians, business leaders, and bureaucrats, not to mention ordinary Russians (a recent poll reported that 56 percent of Russians want him to stay on, up from 44 percent last year.) see no alternative, and with fresh memories of the 1990s still fresh, might not be willing to take a chance on even a handpicked successor. Putin may not be perfect but he is predictable.

Yet as Kommersant argues the chattering about whether Putin will remain or not is a product of the President’s own ambiguity on the subject. In a television broadcast a year ago, Putin told the country, “I don’t consider it appropriate to introduce any changes in the constitution,” but in regard to his future he said, “Let’s maintain the suspense.” Then, the most probable scenario was for Putin to name a successor, probably Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov or First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev. As for post-presidential life, some have suggested that Putin would become the head of Gazprom or lead United Russia. The former still remains a possibility while the latter seems to not be of Putin’s liking. He has yet to even join the party, though there is no question that his influence is unchallenged. The Gazprom option is far more ambitious anyway. Why settle on merely having power over Russia when you can effect the geopolitics of energy? After all, he could put all that knowledge he acquired when, um, er, “writing” that dissertation. Still speculation lingers like Jen and Vince’s wedding. As the business daily explains,

And now the certainty that Putin will leave is melting away. It’s something in the air: an infection in the brain provoked by the ambiguous position taken by Putin. The fateful transfer of power is coming ever closer, but Putin has yet to give a signal how, to whom, and with what consequences and calculations he intends to effect that transaction. The curtain of secrecy around the special operations he has devised for resolving the crisis in 2008 has not been parted even by a millimeter. The president is moving away from any clear answers and is instead only radiating certainty about his strength. And everyone is on edge.

The edge is right. The whole question about the future of Russia with or without Putin looks to keep Russia watchers gainfully employed for the next several years. If his legacy is not in terms of his policies, it will certainly be in the fact that every Russian president in his wake will be measured against him. This fact will eventually put Putin, for better or for worse, in the pantheon of Russia’s great leaders.

A lot of Putin however is more about image rather than substance. This works well in our postmodern times when the former is more politically valuable over the latter. Putin’s personal modesty, intelligence, and temperance is admired by many Russians. His verbal wit and unmoving stance to defend Russia’s interests, however they may be defined, has made Russians proud. But when it comes to politics or ideology, it is difficult to point to anything Putin stands for. He shines radiant brilliance next to a mush mouth like Bush. In fact, many attribute his success to the complete absence of ideology. Ideology, after all, is what sent Russia into the whirlwind of Communist modernization. Like I already stated above, Putin’s lack of ideology makes him predictable.

The secret to Putin’s image might be more. According to Paul Starobin, in probably one of the best articles I’ve read on Putin,

Putin is a difficult character study. An ex-KGB colonel, he is at times deliberately indistinct. And his secretive and tight-knit court tends to operate according to the old Russian village principle of “Iz izby soru ne vynesi“—literally, “Do not carry rubbish out of the hut.” In the emerging school of Putinology, theories abound as to what makes him tick. Many analysts emphasize his intelligence training and his Soviet-era background. Alexander Rahr, the author of a biography of Putin calling him “the German in the Kremlin,” sees him instead in the context of his KGB posting in Dresden and his affinity for German culture (he speaks German fluently). Others see a somewhat ambivalent Putin, split—as Russians often are—between an outward-facing Western orientation and an inward-looking Slavophilic one. The boisterous, red-faced Yeltsin—that bear of a man—more naturally fit the Western idea of a Russian leader. But Putin is as much a product of the Russian environment and heritage as Yeltsin was. In fact, Putin’s Russianness, in the broadest sense, is the key to his character; in certain respects his rule is re-enacting distinctive Russian political traditions.

For Starobin, Putin’s ambivalence is a product of his three integrated personalities: the Fighter, The Chekist, and the Believer. These allow for a manageable balance between Russian patriot but still a stable bulwark against the political extremes of the Russian Left and the Right.

But like I’ve said, Putin is mostly image. And while image can sustain a country and while it may enthrall the functionaries and the populace with the idea that “he has a plan” such ambiguity has limits. This is best seen when Putin has faced crisis. He seemed physically shaken and political frozen during Beslan. The Kursk tragedy was handled in pure Soviet fashion—refuse international aid because it is a sign or weakness and suppress criticism. Many of the real ills in Russian society—poverty, demographic decline, health, AIDS, concentration of wealth, immigration, military reform, etc.—have not been adequately addressed. One may give Putin credit for pacifying Chechnya and praise for the policy of “Chechenization,” but one must ask at what cost? The conflict has spilled over in to neighboring regions. A Kremlin victory has not solved the problem of ethnic/national autonomy. In fact, all accounts point to a resurgence of Russification. Perhaps all of the real and growing social and economic problems that confront Russia have not been dealt with is because such ills require an unambiguous leader. They require ideology.

That said, it is much easier to attend to the macropolitics of geopolitical maneuvering than it is to the micropolitics of daily life. It is on the macro level that Putin has fared well. Russia is now back on the global stage and its influence can be felt in the explosion of articles that warn of its geopolitical ambitions, whether they be in politics or economics. Like his Chinese counterparts, Putin has sat quietly by as George Bush entangles the United States further into the quagmire of the Middle East. In fact, Bush’s policies have proved how dangerous ideology can be. The quietism and restraint of Putin’s “War on Terror” to not extend beyond Russian territory has allowed him to maintain good relations with Muslims within and outside Russia. Rather than joining the American global anti-terrorist chorus, Russia has chosen to form political, economic, and military relationships with the emerging global powers of Iran, China, and India. The alliances have created a de facto Eurasian bloc. One also shouldn’t discount Putin’s recent warm welcoming of Venezuelan president and Left darling, Hugo Chavez. Chavez goal of fortifying his nation’s defenses against American meddling was bolstered with $3 billion in AK-47s. Despite what detractors may say, Putin has returned Russia’s foreign policy independence.

If Putin does lack ideological substance on the domestic end, how has he been so successful? Two things have allowed for the stability that most Russians associate with their leader: the long tradition of Russian political centralization and petrol. The two are intimately connected. The riches generated by oil and natural gas have given Russia the economic surplus to pull it out of the economic crisis of the 1990s. Oil prosperity has also greased the wheels of political centralization. Nationalized oil makes oligarchs superfluous. The smashing of the oligarchs and the jailing of Yukos chair Mikhail Khodorkovsky has played on the tried and true method of scapegoating the nobility that preys on the weak. Peter the Great did this in the 18th century as did Stalin the 20th. It is no surprise that most Russians feel that the oligarchs deserved it. Selective justice is better than no justice at all.

Can one blame Putin? Running Russia like a mafia don has worked time and time again that to fiddle with the abstractness of democracy can breed more demons that it can vanquish. Lent by the country’s vast territory and still archaic communications network, democracy in Russia’s regions quickly translates into fiefdoms. Stalin found this out in the 1930s, when his own party secretaries defied and at times simply ignored Moscow’s directives. Their mini cults of personality were viewed by the center as potential challenges to its legitimacy. Stalin solved the problem through a combination of political violence from above and mobilizing the masses from below against their bosses. The mice toppled the cats, but not without slews of mice getting grinded up along the way.

The real lesson of how to deal with the regions does not come from Stalin, but from Khrushchev. The latter gained a lot of political clout for denouncing terror. But that act also relinquished one of the few monopolies a General Secretary had. There was no reason to fear Khrushchev and when he decided to shake up the Soviet bureaucracy, they sacked him.

If Khrushchev’s removal was the return of the repressed, the Brezhnev era and Gorbachev’s fall was the repressed triumphant. Ironically, the KGB was the center of Soviet reform because unlike their counterparts in Gosplan, they could really see how far the Soviet Union was behind the West. Gorbachev was tumbled by the same conservative streak that runs through Russian bureaucrats. Again the preeminence of the word stability comes to mind.

Stalin’s two pronged assault on the bureaucracy is no longer feasible in the post-Soviet world. Khrushchev’s and Gorbachev’s only led to defeat. Putin would have to adapt politics to a more media savvy polity that still held on to tenets of na?ve monarchism. Unlike his Soviet predecessors, Putin has attended to the problem of regional fiefdom through legalism. United Russia’s slavish support allowed him to legally disarm regional opposition. Governors are now appointed by the Kremlin. Make no mistake, Putin’s political war against the regions is not about improving the quality of Russians’ lives or with preventing mini cults of personality. It is about securing the power of the center though the appointment of loyal captains ready to give patronage to their godfather.

It is perhaps this last point which makes the political climate so fragile. The inherent flaw in Russian system in general and Putin’s system in particular is the very thing which makes his leaving seem so impossible. Without the knot tying all political forces and rivalries, the whole thing could unravel. There are enough precedents in Russian history to suggest this possibility. When Ivan Grozny’s heir accidentally died or was killed (explanations vary), and kingdom was left without a legitimate heir, the nobility erupted in civil war until they came to their senses in 1613 and elected the Romanovs. In 1825, Nicholas I’s heavy hand prevented the Decembrists from erecting the foundation for a constitutional monarchy. In 1924, Lenin’s death allowed the deep tensions between Trotsky and Stalin to burst asunder. Stalin’s ability to forge strategic alliances resulted in Trotsky’s removal (and perhaps prevented civil war in the Party) and gave birth of the triumvirate of Kamenev-Zinoviev-Stalin, that is until the latter politically and then physically liquidated the formers. One gets the feeling that the reticence many Russians have for transferring power comes from having this history in the back of their minds.

Given all of this, the question should not be whether Putin will stay or leave. This question only elicits betting the odds and tabloid drama. Rather the question should be, what will occur if Putin stays or leaves? If Putin stays, Russia might continue to successfully negotiate the contradictions engendered by its successes and failures. Or the thin crust that serves as its political foundation may begin to show cracks as Putin’s image begins to wear thin with time. Here Putin might learn a lesson from Lukashenka and Leonid Kuchma and begin to seriously begin to foster political alternatives and openness. Or to prevent the slow erosion of Russia, Putin might have to firm up control like Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov.

Sadly, Putin’s departure might bring more rapid disaster. Any new leader will begin at a disadvantage. A period of uncertainty will follow along with the constant evaluation of the new leader against the old one. Unlocking the political patronage networks that Putin has secured might push formerly muted political rivals out of the woodwork. And by political rivals, I don’t mean Western darlings the likes of Garry Kasparov. In such situations one might better look at the military or security apparatuses. The problem is that since we are all so obsessed with Putin, many of the behind the scenes actors remain faceless.

In the end, there might be more at stake if Putin leaves than if he stays. I think that the final paragraphs of the Kommersant article sums up the situation nicely,

The general understanding that there is no reason, apart from subjective reasons, for Putin to step down is gaining strength. Not for nothing are analysts more and more often interpreting Putin’s departure from a psychological point of view: that he is not power-hungry, that he is tired of protocol, etc. The opinion of the West? The danger of becoming another Lukashenko? Hardly: the West is in no condition to isolate Russia like it is doing to Belarus. After all, the Kazakh leader Nazarbayev does not feel himself to be an outcast. This is a question of politics. The problem, as a significant portion of the elite sees it, is in two lines of text on a piece of paper. And that’s it. A small legal splinter in a healthy body, a smoothly functioning vertical.

But how to understand where the legal collision is – an empty rule, but where does the it hold the boundaries of the historical process? And where are these boundaries going after the revisions of the government that took place in the 1990s? Do they exist at all? What was that? Where are we – in a modernized and spiffed-up USSR, in which leaders went out feet first, or in a country that lives according to new principles? The crisis facing society in the guise of the dead end of 2008 is linked with the necessity of giving these questions about the competence of the organs of power a simple answer.