Meeting with Lilia Shevtsova, Carnegie Endowment senior associate, Archie Brown, professor at Oxford University, and Eugene Huskey, of Stetson University, Florida. Carnegie’s Vice President for Studies, Thomas Carothers, moderated.
This meeting will be a "tour from perestroika to Texas barbecue," Carothers quipped in outlining the scope of the panelists’ remarks.
Speaking first, Brown outlined five major transformations that have taken place in Russia since 1985—all of which are interconnected and occurred prior to Putin’s ascent to power. They are: the transition from authoritarianism to political pluralism, the transition from a command economy to a capitalist market economy, the end of the Cold War after 1988, the relinquishment of Communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe, and, finally, the spin-off of the individual Soviet Republics. Too often, he said, these five are lumped together under the simplified label "the collapse of the USSR."
Putin, Brown observed, has performed brilliantly since September 11th. He is a pragmatic, conservative leader who has centralized control, and who is "perhaps as good a president as we had a right to expect." History shows that to ignore or discount Russia "is much more dangerous than engaging with her." This means that the United States has no choice but to engage with Putin.
Huskey noted that Putin inherited a Russia where regional power threatened the authority of the state. Some in the West read the devolution of power to the regions under Yeltsin as the progress of democracy, but the flip side of that was the "chronic hyper-personalism" of regional leaders. When Putin came to office, he quickly clipped the wings of regional elites, which was to some degree "a self-serving exercise" because it strengthened Putin’s hand. At the same time, Putin has demonstrated that he is sensitive to Western perceptions of him. Huskey cited one example: to please the Council of Europe, Putin recently agreed to abolish the death penalty even though such a policy has little public support in Russia. Putin, like Gorbachev, was trained as a lawyer, but unlike Gorbachev, he worked as an administrator, not a politician. This, Huskey suggested, has allowed Putin to "de-dramatize" Russian politics—a welcome change for a population who longed for the "placidness" of the USSR. In many ways, Putin has embraced Soviet symbols while pursuing Western substance, Huskey remarked.
Huskey pointed out one cause for concern. Putin has a tendency to alienate his natural bases of support, as he has done with the oligarchs. If Putin loses the loyalty of the power structure, which is already "suspect," Huskey said, Putin will find himself without bureaucratic support and forced to rely on popular support, which is more fickle. With this in mind, Putin realizes that this week’s summit with Bush is absolutely critical to his political future. He must show that he stands for more than the status quo, that progress is being made.
Finally, Huskey suggested that although the U.S. presence in Uzbekistan has made many Russian policymakers nervous, eventually Russians might begin to see the U.S. presence as beneficial because it will constrain the hegemonic ambitions of Uzbekistan’s irredentist governement. With Russia, he believed, seemingly unchangeable structures and mindsets can be changed by circumstance.
Shevtsova outlined three ways in which Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin are similar. First, they each rose from the ranks of the Soviet nomenklatura and failed to provide an alternative elite. Second, they share a general suspicion toward institutions and all acted within the tradition of monolithic, undivided power. Third, they governed on the basis of impulse and intuition, not strategy or principles.
With Putin, however, Shevtsova observed paradoxical traits, which have created both opportunities and pitfalls. Putin came to power because he was seen as Yeltsin’s successor, as a symbol of continuity. But paradoxically, to survive, Putin had to dismantle Yeltsin’s system. Running for election in March 2000, Putin wanted to be all things to all people. This was a smart strategy, Shevtsova noted – and a successful one. In order to carry out the changes he wanted within the government, though, Putin could no longer remain everyone’s friend. This past spring, he took a strong pro-reform stance; in the fall of 2001 he has taken a strong pro-West position in foreign policy. "This from a guy who, heretofore, avoided strong stands," commented Shevtsova. Putin has 75% popular approval in opinion polls today, after nearly two years in office. However, only 14% think he has achieved some success in that time and the ratings for the government in general are steadily declining. His popularity is based on hope, not accomplishment, which gives poll numbers a feeling of surrealism.
The irony, then, is that Putin is single-handedly trying to build a managed—"some say castrated"—democracy and will be seen as accountable for everything because the system has been overcentralized. "He will be held responsible for all mistakes of his subordinates," Shevtsova predicted.
Putin is a rational, cold-blooded pragmatist, which is what enabled him to make bold pro-US policy changes in September. Unfortunately, such changes were not part of a long-term, clear-cut strategy; they reflect no deeper substance, only intuition—the very thing that doomed both Gorbachev and Yeltsin. The only difference is that the U.S. and Russia are now "dating" on the basis of necessity, whereas with Yeltsin, it was on the basis of emotion.
Two factors affect Putin and his movement toward the West, said Shevtsova. The first is the readiness and capability of the West to suggest a more sophisticated strategy for integration with Russia. Second, the success of the next stage of transformation might mean that Putin will be required to undo what he has done so far. He needs to revolutionize the key institutes of political leadership, even though it would be political suicide for him. As for whether there were any prospect for rejuvenating Russian democracy through young elites, following the experience of many Baltic and Central European states, Shevtsova said, "The bench is very short – Putin has already cleaned out Saint Petersburg." A solid 45% of Russians are pro-West and highly educated, of these 15% were educated in the West. These will push for the reform of the apparat; to raise government salaries to make public service more attractive to talented young people, which will in turn make the apparat more effective. "Putin needs to change the bureaucracy at large because it is one of his two bases of support. (The other is the energy sector.) He must concentrate on this new revolution."
Summary by Caroline McGregor, Junior Fellow, Russia & Eurasia program.