Michael McFaul is an associate professor of political science at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
INSIDE PUTIN'S RUSSIA
By Andrew Jack. Oxford Univ. 362 pp. $30
RUSSIAN CROSSROADS: Toward the New Millennium
By Yevgeny Primakov. Yale Univ. 337 pp. $35
Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" was easily one of the most uplifting events of 2004. Corrupt officials tried to steal the presidential election and make Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych the next president, but Ukrainian society fought back to demand that the actual winner, opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, be allowed to take power. In a country not known for successful revolutionary uprisings, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians wearing defiant orange massed in major cities, endured the bitter cold for two weeks and demanded that the regime recognize the actual result of the vote. After a tense standoff, it did. Yushchenko easily won a new round of elections ordered by the Supreme Court. Like all post-revolutionary leaders, of course, President Yushchenko will never meet the inflated expectations of his backers. Nonetheless, the breakthrough in Ukraine is likely to keep this new country permanently on a democratic path, however bumpy.
Ukraine today, Russia tomorrow? At a minimum, the sea of orange from downtown Kiev should lay to rest those tired stereotypes of Slavs as apolitical, uninterested people who yearn for autocratic rulers. Ukrainians have no significant experience with democratic rule, but they nonetheless managed to overcome their historical legacy and demand a more democratic way to rule and be ruled. Shouldn't Russians be able to do the same?
After reading Andrew Jack's Inside Putin's Russia and Yevgeny Primakov's Russian Crossroads, the answer is, "Not anytime soon." In very different ways, both books highlight the reasons that a Russian democratic renaissance is unlikely.
Probably unintentionally, Primakov's book shows one major shackle: the Soviet communist and imperial legacy that, in a sense, he personifies. Primakov was a successful member of the Soviet Union's elite who made the transition to Russia's post-Soviet elite. His quasi-memoir goes to great lengths to portray him as a skeptic or even a dissident within the Soviet system, but he was a system man nonetheless, serving as a correspondent for the Communist Party's mouthpiece, Pravda, then as head of one of the most prestigious Soviet think tanks and finally as a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. In countries upended by revolutions, elites from the ancien rÃ©gime like Primakov only rarely survive (either figuratively or literally). Yet in post-Soviet Russia, Primakov held on, serving as head of the international intelligence service, foreign minister and prime minister. Nearly a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Primakov was the most popular politician in Russia.
His enduring impact on post-Soviet politics highlights the continuity between the Soviet Union and today's Russia. Russians in 1990-91, like Ukrainians today, did mobilize often and massively to demand a less corrupt, more democratic government. Push finally came to shove in August 1991, when Russians again rallied to thwart a coup attempt by die-hard Soviet opponents of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms. The coup collapsed, followed shortly by the Soviet Union itself. Yet, as Primakov's career acutely demonstrates, not everything changed after August 1991. Instead, Soviet political and economic elites adapted to some degree but also brought with them old Soviet customs and ways of thinking, some of them antithetical to democracy. For instance, both Primakov and Jack emphasize the ways in which privatization dominated by Soviet-era elites undermined Russia's nascent democratic culture and weak democratic institutions. Just as in Soviet times, those connected to the state (not self-made entrepreneurs) were winning, while the narod -- the people -- were being left out.
Even more revealing proof of the weight of the Soviet heritage can be found in Primakov's own attitudes about politics, revealed in Russian Crossroads. For instance, in retelling the 2000-01 drama of Russian President Vladimir Putin's assault against the country's only major independent television network, NTV, Primakov argues defensively that "freedom of the press was never under attack in Russia." "It is clear," he adds, that now that NTV's programs are produced by management closely tied to Putin, they contain "even more direct and indirect criticism of the Russian leadership now than they did" under the old, independent owner. It's hard to build democracy with leaders who hold such views. And in Russia today, most state officials, including Putin himself, embrace Primakov's interpretation.
His views on the world are similarly widely embraced among Russian elites. In most of his book's foreign policy discussions, be it Operation Desert Storm or the war in Kosovo, Primakov is firmly in the anti-American camp. It's a dispiriting reminder of why the integration of a democratic Russia into the Western community of states is still a futuristic and perhaps fanciful project.
To be fair, the Soviet legacy, as represented by Primakov, has not been entirely bad for Russia's political development. Primakov stood resolutely against the August 1991 coup attempt and played a truly heroic role in pulling the country back from the abyss as Russia's new prime minister in the wake of its August 1998 financial meltdown. At least as important as his liberal market reforms was Primakov's decision not try to seize power as prime minister by taking advantage of a politically damaged and physically frail President Boris Yeltsin. Instead, he abided by the political rules of the game and stepped down without a fight when Yeltsin fired him after only nine months in office. Primakov's actions, like most actions taken by the leftist opposition throughout the 1990s, were democratic and deserved to be recognized as such.
The Soviet legacy can be invoked as only a partial explanation for why Russia's democracy has faltered. After all, Ukraine also inherited the same Soviet institutions and practices that Russia did. Leadership matters, too, and that brings us to Vladimir Putin.
In very different ways, both Primakov and Jack want to remind readers that Yeltsin did not construct a liberal democracy that Putin then destroyed. While Primakov expresses surprising respect for Yeltsin personally, the former prime minister lambastes the system that Yeltsin allowed to take root during his final years in office. According to Primakov, the "Family" -- a tightly knit, ruthless and corrupt group ensconced in the Kremlin, headed by Yeltsin's daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko; his chief of staff; and the oligarch Boris Berezovsky -- actually ran Russia when he was prime minister.
Jack agrees, using somewhat different language. Yeltsin first gutted checks and balances in Russia's infant democracy by bombing the parliament in October 1993, then cajoling voters to approve a new constitution giving him more clout. Next, he let this centralized system of power be used for the personal financial interests of a small group of Russian oligarchs closely tied to the Kremlin. Jack also reminds the reader that Yeltsin allowed regional leaders to grow autocratic on his watch. As Jack puts it, "the degree of democratization that took place under Yeltsin can also be exaggerated."
If Yeltsin didn't push democracy that far forward, perhaps Putin didn't push it as far backward. If Russia wasn't really a democracy when Putin became president in 2000, after all, there was nothing to roll back. Jack's account of the Putin era sees considerable political continuity between Yeltsin and Putin, while emphasizing Putin's positive economic reforms and foreign policy.
In the most comprehensive account of Putin's first term in office now in print, Jack presents a judicious account of his achievements: tax reform, balanced budgets, sharply reduced international lending and a booming economy. Jack rightly acknowledges that Putin benefited more from luck than from good economic policy, since the 1998 devaluation of the ruble and high oil prices account for much of the growth. But Jack also notes that Putin didn't squander his good fortune (at least in the first term) through reckless spending or heavy-handed state interference.
Jack also gives Putin good marks for pragmatism in foreign policy, though many Ukrainians are unlikely to share Jack's interpretation of Russian policy toward the Commonwealth of Independent States as one of partnership, rather than neo-imperialism.
When it comes to politics, Jack bends over backward to give Putin the benefit of the doubt. But Jack is just too good a reporter to ignore the hard facts of Putin's assault against democratic institutions. However weak they were at the end of Yeltsin's time in office, Putin -- and really Putin alone -- has made them far weaker.
As Jack details in several excellent chapters, Putin continued a brutal and ineffective war in Chechnya, acquired de facto control of all major national television networks, turned both houses of parliament into rubber stamps, arbitrarily jailed or exiled political foes, rigged regional elections, arrested outspoken journalists, weakened political parties and increased the role of the FSB (the successor organization to the KGB). In isolation, each of these steps can be interpreted as something besides democratic backsliding. The government in Chechnya did not work; terrorists did and do reside there. Most Russian oligarchs have skeletons in the closest. Some of the regional barons Putin reined in actually behaved as tyrants in their own fiefdoms. The tycoons now sitting in jail or in exile were no Nelson Mandelas. And more generally, everyone believes that Russia needs a more effective state to develop both markets and democracy. But when analyzed together, the thread uniting these events is clear: an assault on any source of power outside the Kremlin walls. What distinguishes Russia and Ukraine today, then, is Putin and his "successful" political changes.
Were Putin's autocratic political reforms necessary to spur economic growth? From time to time, Jack offers a timid yes, but the evidence presented is weak -- perhaps deliberately so. Does the arrest of antiwar activists demonstrating in downtown Moscow add to Russia's hard currency reserves? Is there any evidence linking the brutal war in Chechnya with Russian government surpluses? Imagine how much higher Russia's growth numbers would have been over the last several years if Russian democracy had been deepening, rather than eroding. We don't yet know if Putin in his second term will attempt to undermine all democratic practices. But if he does, the economic growth and political stability so critical to his popularity thus far will wane, and orange scarves may begin to appear even in Red Square. •