A different view of Putin

Q&A: Lieven - A different view of Putin

By Peter Lavelle

Originally published in the Untimely Thoughts on August 23, 2004

MOSCOW, Aug. 23 (UPI) -- UPI's Moscow-based analyst Peter Lavelle interviews Anatol Lieven, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; his next book, America Right and Wrong will be released in October.

UPI: An op-ed piece you wrote for the Financial Times last month caused a bit of stir among Russia watchers. In that piece you state, "Vladimir Putin is a convinced reformer, dedicated to modernizing Russia and integrating in into the world economy. Both his language and his actions leave no doubt about this. Equally, it is obvious that Mr Putin is not a sincere or convinced liberal democrat. At least not for Russia in its present state or for many years to come." In your opinion, why does your characterization of Putin bother some Russia experts?

Lieven: I should say at the start that I am no unconditional supporter of Putin myself, nor do I think that his program will necessarily work. There are many reasons to distrust and criticize him, including the over-reliance on the security services as a base for his administration, and the disastrous decision to intervene in Chechnya. All I have tried to do is place Russia under Putin in an international and historical context and draw attention to a number of facts which should be evident from such a perspective: that Russia is not "going back to the Soviet Union"; that the anarchy, misery and decline of the 1990s were such that any Russian administration would have had to act to restore a measure of order and eliminate the oligarchical system created in those years; that far from pursuing some kind of uniquely wicked course, the kind of system Putin is creating has many analogies round the world, including many states which the West has supported; and that se mi-authoritarian capitalist modernization is not an irrational strategy. It has worked in a number of countries in the past, including in by far the greatest example of economic growth and social transformation over the past generation, China.

If these points are unacceptable to a good many Western observers of Russia, I'd say it's for three reasons: there is a widespread ideological belief in the West that every society in the world is inherently capable of adopting successful Western democracy and economics virtually overnight; and in consequence, if countries fail to achieve this it is not because of the state of their social, economic, political and cultural systems, but is the work of wicked individuals and groups. This feeling in the West is encouraged by Russian intellectuals who as Sergei Witte once noted have an ingrained belief that they have a God-given right to live in a version of England or the U.S., and if they don't, it must be once again because of the actions of wicked rulers.

There is ample evidence on the other hand to suggest that the achievement of successful democracy depends to a considerable extent on the creation of a social, economic and not least moral order that will support such a democracy. The Whig Theory of History, from which many na?ve democratizers in the West draw their ultimate inspiration, in fact states quite clearly that the creation of modern democratic institutions is a long process critically dependent on the existence of politically committed middle classes with a strong sense of political, legal and economic rights. I hope very much that such an order will emerge in Russia over the next generation or so. It doesn't exist at present. One obvious sign of its absence is the complete failure to create mass democratic political parties - and without them, Russian "democracy" can only be some more-or-less veiled version of autocracy, oligarchy or anarchy.

Other reasons for what I would see as the obsessive focus on Putin's and indeed Russian wickedness are perhaps less honorable. One is that in the 1990s a number of Western experts committed themselves blindly and unconditionally to an absolutely disastrous version of Russian reform, which badly damaged the economy, impoverished much of the population, and incidentally created mindsets which make the creation of honest and uncorrupt behavior in government and society extremely difficult. These Western experts have to go on arguing that the order they created was a success, and that any attempt to qualify it is retrograde, "Soviet", and so on. I must also point out that far from being a neutral or objective force in what happened in Russia, Western countries and more particularly Western banks profited very handsomely from the enormous flows of money out of that country in the 1990s.

Finally, the Cold War created a mood of pathological suspicion and fear of Russia in sections of the West that has been very slow to fade. As I pointed out in my column, if Mikhail Khodorkovsky (the former CEO of Yukos and on trial for tax evasion and other serious charges) were Chinese, he would have been shot by now - without a whisper of protest from most of these Westerners who complain so much about human rights in Russia.

Q: If Putin is a convinced reformer and unconvinced liberal democrat, what kind of political and economic system is he trying to create - and will that system eventually resemble what is found in Western polities?

A: Putin is trying to create a successful modern capitalist state, one of the centers of modern world capitalist civilization. As long as the prestige of the West's democratic model continues, there will be an inevitable tendency for the middle classes of such a state eventually to be drawn towards an adoption of Western-style democracy. My own belief has always been that if we in the West want to spread democracy round the world, our first duty is to maintain the health and the appeal of our own systems.

Of course, whether Putin and his successors will actually succeed in this capitalist modernization is another matter. If one looks round the world, the number of countries which have succeeded in joining the developed world remains quite small, with most stuck somewhere in the middle.

Q: No other event in Russia over the past year has generated such a wide array of emotions and analyses as the Yukos affair (the Kremlin's legal attack on Russia's largest private oil company and its core shareholders). Your view of this story is very different than what could be called the "conventional wisdom." In your opinion, what is the Yukos affair about and is it a necessary part of Putin economic reform agenda?

A: Any Russian government would have had to reduce the power of the so-called "oligarchs" (I prefer the term "magnates", since these people did not succeed in creating a stable, united oligarchy). The way in which they plundered the resources of the Russian state was totally unacceptable. This and their massive evasion of taxes crippled the state's revenues, with disastrous consequences for essential services and the lives of many ordinary Russians. And their attempt to control Russian government, media and party politics would have created a system that was every bit as undemocratic as that of Putin.

It is after all generally recognized that crony capitalism can be a fundamental obstacle to the creation of a successful modern capitalist system. We recognize this everywhere else - why not in the case of Russia? One example of the way in which the "oligarchs" obstructed and still obstruct the creation of such a system in Russia is their creation and control of a weak and rotten banking system.

As to the means of combating Khodorkovsky, three points need to be made, which are in turn legal, democratic and realistic: Does anyone seriously doubt that he is actually guilty of the specific crimes charged against him? Is it not true that the overwhelming majority of Russia's voters strongly support Putin's moves against him, for reasons that would be shared by Western electorates? And finally, in circumstances where the oligarchs had seized control of much of the state, media and judiciary, is it really honest to argue that the campaign against them could be conducted by purely judicial means?

Q: The Kremlin has been severely criticized for its heavy-handed approach to the electronic media, particularly television. At present this is not a major network independent of Kremlin control and/or influence. You convincingly argue that this is necessary for Putin's unpopular reform project to go forward. However, isn't there a danger that once the state takes control of the electronic media it might not be willing to give up control in the future?

A: You're quite right. The danger that the state will control television indefinitely is one of the biggest long-term threats to the creation of an open society and functioning democracy in the long-term. I draw some reassurance, however, from two things. The first is that the print media, and most of radio, remain free, so among the educated sections of the population at least a debate on national issues is continuing. The other is that heavy-handed control of television by the state and the government of the day has been characteristic of many countries, which have either been democracies (like India ... )or have subsequently moved to democracy, like Turkey. So nothing is set in stone for all time. It is also worth pointing out that while Putin's approach has been semi-authoritarian, it is of course in no way totalitarian. Not only does it accept public debate within certain limits, but also it fully recognizes the cultural and religious pluralism and diversity of the R ussian Federation.

Q: It is almost universally agreed that a strong middle class and a solid and impartial judicial system are key to developing a meaningful civil society in Russia. However, with the state re-asserting itself at the expense of democratic development and the current gross income differentials among Russians, how can a strong civil society come into being given these circumstances?

A: The creation of such a middle class, and a civil society supported by such a middle class, will inevitably be a matter of at least a generation, and quite possibly much more. In the case of South Korea and Taiwan, the period from the start of successful economic growth to the achievement of full democracy spanned some three decades. And of course it may well not happen, as the example of so much of Latin America demonstrates. Gross income differentials are indeed a terrible problem, in Russia as in Brazil.

But this at least is not Putin's fault. If he (or for that matter Lula da Silva) acted radically to change this situation, Western commentators would be the first to attack them. After all - as I also pointed out in my column - the reform of social subsidies, which has made Putin so unpopular and which will undoubtedly hit many ordinary Russians very badly, has been urged for years by Western economists and advisers.

Q: Very quickly, what do you think are Putin's greatest strengths as president? And his weaknesses?

A: Putin's greatest strengths in my view are realism and patriotism. Unlike either Mikhail Gorbachev or Boris Yeltsin, he fully understands Russia's contemporary weaknesses and failings. His aims for Russia are modest and potentially at least achievable. At the same time, he appears to be deeply committed to the well-being of his country, and to be prepared to work consistently and very hard to achieve that goal. His greatest overall failing would seem to be a certain intellectual and moral narrowness and lack of sophistication, produced by his Soviet upbringing and especially, of course, his service in the KGB. Under pressure, he may revert to brutal and counter-productive ruthlessness, as in the disastrous case of the intervention in Chechnya.

There is also some reason to doubt whether he has the determination to press for reform in the face of really serious resistance from the state or society - the failure to reform the armed forces is an obvious example. Here, however, one must note that any leader would face monstrous problems in this regard, given the legacy both of the Soviet system and the way in which it collapsed. All leaders, and especially authoritarian or semi-authoritarian ones, have a tendency to see their countries and themselves as indistinguishable. The biggest test for Putin in this regard will be if he respects the constitution and actually leaves office when his term expires.

Q: Putin is a lame duck president, leaving office in 2008. A lot can happen over fours years. Actually, a lot has happened in Russia over the past four months! If you don't mind, what kind of legacy do you think Putin wants to leave behind?

A: If Putin arranges for a stable succession to a figure who will continue economic and state reforms and maintain a stable and moderate course in external relations; if when Putin leaves office Russia has experienced several more years of high economic growth, if the resulting profits have mostly stayed in Russia, and if a reasonable proportion have been spent on the reconstruction of Russia's infrastructure and state services, then I think Putin will be fairly content. As far as Russia's external relations are concerned, Russia has adequately good and stable relations with the West and the world's other leading powers. Russia remains the predominant force on the territory of the former Soviet Union, and above all Russia itself has not disintegrated further - though the conflict over Chechnya will probably go on indefinitely. That is a lot less than the euphoric hopes of the early 1990s would have led us to expect by 2008, but on the other hand it is vastly better than t he apocalyptic predictions of those years would have led us to fear. That would not be a great legacy, but it would be a respectable one by most historical standards.