Vladimir Putin's Russia

Three Strange Years

Putin and Yeltsin matrioshka dolls, Moscow (Photo: AFP)

What have the past three years brought us? What has the president himself brought us? Let us try to find out what Russia's problems are and how Vladimir Putin has tried to cure them.

Poverty is the first problem. Russia is the world's richest nation in terms of its natural resources; it was one of the first two countries to develop nuclear power and space travel; it has a skilled, educated, politically active workforce. All this is Russia: the country where Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita is a quarter of what it is in the United States (a modest estimate). On average life expectancy, Japan leads Russia by 12.5 years, France by 10 years, the United States and Germany by nine years, and Turkey by 18 months.

In December 1999, several days before he became acting president… Putin wrote an article titled "Russia on the Threshold of the Millennium." It included the calculations that have since become famous: Russia’s GDP needs to grow at an average of 8 percent for 15 years to catch up with Spain and Portugal, the European Union's outsiders. Nobody knew at the time what the GDP growth would be like the following year since the economy was contracting.

Since then, Russia has posted an 8-percent annual gain in GDP only once. Even now, the government does not consider it possible to sustain such a growth rate for more than a year. As prime minister, Putin ordered an economic strategy to be developed for the Russian Federation through 2010. Six months later, the Cabinet approved a strategy calling for the facilitation and completion of liberal market reforms. This was Putin’s vaunted cure for Russia’s economic woes.

The cure was correct and the only one possible. But Russia owes its unexpected economic successes between 1999 and 2001 to something other than the efforts of reformers: luck. In 2000 alone, additional revenue, driven by higher prices for Russia's exports and lower prices for imports, amounted to US$30 billion, US$11 billion of which went to the state budget. To get an impression of what this meant, let us recall that the entire 1998 federal budget amounted to US$20 billion. Foreign debts, accumulated over the previous two decades, diminished somewhat…. In short, the government managed to get by without making any serious mistakes between 1999 and 2001.

The liberal economic agenda cannot be called into question at present; but domestic policy is certainly different.

The second war in Chechnya (call it a counterterrorism operation if you wish) is the most tragic and dangerous event of Putin's three years. Why hasn't it been stopped yet?

There are too many people in Moscow and Chechnya who view the war as a means of making money or advancing their careers, or both. The president of Russia isn't making any money from the war himself, that much is clear. As for his career, that was taken care of on the day of the election in 2000, when the nation saw him as an advocate of a strong state ready to destroy all enemies in Chechnya and elsewhere. After that, no rational considerations prevented him from putting an end to the war. Has an irrational factor played a role here? Perhaps, and not only on Putin’s part. Hatred among some people in the president’s inner circle has played its part. The bureaucracy gave in to a base motive—revenge.

The second Chechen campaign began as Putin's best political achievement and his path to the top. It is gradually transforming, slowly but irreversibly, into his worst defeat, jeopardizing his very political future.

It is clear that the Chechnya tragedy may be viewed from the standpoint of the president's interests only in an article about Putin. In fact, it should be viewed from the standpoint of the consequences for Chechnya and for Russia. The consequences for Chechnya are all too apparent. The consequences for Russia, I think, are underestimated by society. Liberal elites appear to have missed the moment when the counterterrorism operation—more or less justified by circumstances—degenerated into a terrorist war against the population. Such wars inevitably sully the nations that wage them.

A similar war in Algeria once generated a wave of nationalism and fascism in France. In this case, the war in Chechnya is just a brushstroke on a painting in which Russia does not look very good. The impunity of secret services is demonstrated by more and more "spy" cases—both shamefully lost and shamefully won by the state. FSB officers are moving into the civil service en masse. The origins of these people, including the president, are not the problem. The problem is that beating an innocent person to death in a police station is just as easy in any Russian region as it is in Chechnya. The problem is that when Asian vendors were assaulted at marketplaces in Moscow, the police force concentrated on harassing the vendors rather than their assailants.

Add here the notorious campaign against free speech. It has not restored official censorship yet (even though such demands can be heard every now and then) but has already revived the "internal censor" in many journalists. Add here the utter paralysis of parliamentary opposition, as a result of the intrigues of the Kremlin. At first the Kremlin used the Communist Party in its battle against the Fatherland Party, the All Russia Party, and the right, then it turned the tables and sided with the right and the centrists against communists. Add here the subversion of the Federation Council as an independent assembly of elected regional leaders. Add here the abolition of the presidential clemency commission—a decision that directly affected thousands of justly and unjustly convicted Russians and sent an important signal to bureaucrats. Add here the revival of Stalin-era music for the national anthem, and amendments to electoral legislation…. All this forms the almost finished picture of a controlled democracy that was brought in to replace real democracy. Shall we stop here or shall we crawl on?

What follows is fascism, whose elements are already a hard fact of life, particularly in Chechnya. It is unlikely to take the form of Stalin's or Hitler's fascism throughout the rest of the country: That is too difficult and absolutely unnecessary. But a corporate state of the Mussolini type, with "socialist" phraseology, is a grim possibility.

It isn't hard to see that such a state cannot expect stable and solid support from the people. Neither does Putin have a reliable political force—a political party—behind him.

Some who claim to know the president personally say he has the gift of strategic thinking. There is some evidence of this: from charting and implementing economic strategy to the most important event of Putin's three years in power, i.e. the statement in the wake of Sept. 11 on Russia's readiness to become an ally of its former strategic antagonist. This statement gave Russia a unique opportunity. The period since then makes one wonder whether Russia is smart enough to capitalize on the opportunity. Transforming Russia into a modern European state is incompatible with restoring atavisms of the Stalin era… even if Russia retains its new eighth seat at the table of G-7 leaders.