Vladimir Putin gets a bad press outside Russia. From the cases of Alexander Litvinenko, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, or Pussy Riot to the sponsoring of laws against gay “propaganda”, he is usually cast in a dark role. Those not warning the world about him are mocking a sometime martial artist, submariner and lover of tiger encounters.
Of late, the rhetoric and editorialising have been reminiscent of the Cold War. The Russian president’s defiance of the US over Edward Snowden, allowing the digital defector to remain at Moscow’s Sheremetevo Airport for more than a month as the White House fumes impotently and his stance over Syria has led to an anti-Putin frenzy in the Western media.
Rise of the Kremlin Kleptocracy
Writing in Komsomolskaya Pravda in the last months of the Soviet era, Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed: “The clock of communism has stopped striking. But its concrete building has not yet come crashing down. For that reason, instead of freeing ourselves, we must try to save ourselves from being crushed by its rubble.”
But after the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991 it was not just rubble that was the problem. In a devastating decade the assets of the country were ripped off. Gangster capitalism emerged and preyed on the prostrate country.
Much of the old Soviet elite – the nomenklatura who had been positively vetted for high posts in party and state – rapidly converted themselves into a property-owning middle class, with a new crude “aristocracy” of oligarchs of unbelievable wealth at the top. The poor, the vast pool of unemployed created by the theft of a nation, pensioners, the sick, the young whose schooling became a lottery, all suffered. Male life expectancy fell from 65 years in 1986 to 57 in the mid-1990s.
This tragedy was presided over by Boris Yeltsin, drunken conductor of a German brass band, general buffoon, corrupt liner of his and others pockets on a grand scale but, more seriously, destroyer, in 1993, of the nearest thing Russia had to a parliament by firing shells on its White House home.
He also crudely manipulated his re-election campaign in 1996, depriving opponents of a voice. Despite all this, unlike Putin, Yeltsin enjoyed a largely favourable press and image in the West.
There were two reasons for this. The only organised alternative to Yeltsin was the rump of the communist party and his bizarre presidency ensured it would never reorganise or gain control. In addition, many foreign interests – especially oil, financial and legal services and some agribusinesses – were able to fish prize specimens from the dank, turbulent and muddy pool.
In 1998 a massive currency crisis finally stopped the ugly process in its tracks. Yeltsin had to step down for “health” reasons and the relatively unknown Putin was appointed as his successor in 1999.
Putin makes his mark
At first, it appeared that Putin would have to be, like Yeltsin, a puppet of the oligarchs and the Kremlin kleptocracy. However, he soon proved to have a political strength of his own and, in a first major arm wrestle in 2004, he arrested and prosecuted the richest and most powerful oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, at that time number 16 on the Forbes world rich list.
Others took refuge abroad, like Boris Berezovsky, who was given asylum by the United Kingdom and eventually committed suicide in Berkshire earlier this year. Berezovsky’s former protégée, Roman Abramovich, with whom he fought and lost a long court duel in London, took a different strategy.
Making himself a public figure in British life gave Abramovich some protection from Putin’s control but, at the same time, he maintained positive working relations with Putin who put a golden chain round his neck by reappointing him as governor of the small and distant Chukhotka region when he wanted to give it up in 2004.
This was typical of Putin’s new style. He was not going to be a creature of the oligarchs, who would have to toe his line or leave Russia. Putin gained immense popularity in 2009 by publicly taking to task one of the richest Russian-based oligarchs, Oleg Deripaska, for shortcomings in his aluminium-smelting factory in Leningrad province.
Putin’s style has certainly been authoritarian but to see oligarchs as human rights victims is to stretch the definition.
Popular at home
Other elements of his popularity have been a more assertive international stance in which Russia shows independence in the face of American and western opposition – currently manifesting in the crisis in Syria, one of Russia’s oldest allies – and a relatively successful economic policy which saw a period of growth, falling unemployment and rise in real wages, sometimes achieved by increasing state intervention in the economy including the re-nationalisation of factories and industries.
Obviously, none of this was popular in the West, since they curtailed western influence over the country, limited business opportunities and, supposedly, revived Soviet-era ghosts. The response of the Russian population, apart from its oligarchs and intellectuals, has been much more favourable and, even though they are slipping, Putin’s poll ratings remain very high.
It has often been said that the pattern of governing a vast country like Russia is that if the centre is weak, chaos ensues. On the other hand, if the centre is strong, state construction and tyranny ensue. Russians as a whole seem to prefer the latter to the former. Even so, Putin is no tyrant.
There are many freedoms in Russia despite the obvious imperfections of its democracy. One of the most important features which is still lacking as a key to escaping this historic cycle is a genuine rule of law. Russia has never enjoyed this privilege. At one time Putin appeared to be constructing it. Worryingly, that project appears to have been stalled.
However, his authoritarianism has been aimed in the direction of constructing a viable state not only from the Soviet rubble but from the dissolution of central authority and economic meltdown promoted by Yeltsin. The dangers of over-centralising are obvious and the process is far from over. The situation needs to be watched carefully, but the full complexity with which Putin is dealing needs to be taken into account.