Any bureaucrat can tell you. The secret of success is an incompetent predecessor. Vladimir Putin won his easy victory in the March 26 presidential election running as Yeltsin’s opposite, and he will try to govern in the same way.
To this writer at least, there is little mystery about Putin’s purposes or intentions. He hopes to impose order on anarchic Russia, strengthen the state and establish rules of economic conduct that can be widely understood and consistently enforced. Nurturing democracy and protecting dissent are not on the agenda, but cultivating public opinion most certainly is. What Putin calls “dictatorship of the law,” an update of Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat, is a top-down populism that has appeared in many versions in Latin America and Asia since 1945. Putin’s version may be rougher than most, with a heavy reliance on force that is suited to Russia’s harsh political climate. But it will still be easily recognizable.
If this is Putin’s model, the implications for key political issues are clear.
* Secession and separatism will not be tolerated. The war in Chechnya showed that Putin is quite prepared to endure protracted guerrilla warfare and likely domestic terrorism to prevent further erosion of federal authority. Political reconciliation with the Chechens is of no interest and may be seen as impossible.
* The oligarchs will have a new role. Putin will not (as Yeltsin did) trade away state assets for political support. Quite the contrary–he will use his political support to restore state authority in the economic and commercial world where the oligarchs have had a free hand. In the expression of one Russian journalist, he will “de-privatize” the state. The oligarchs may keep their wealth, but they will have to pay their taxes, their suppliers and their workers, and they may be prevailed upon to bring flight capital back to Russia.
To bring the oligarchs to heel Putin may choose to make an example of one or more of them. The oligarchs understand this. Listen to Boris Berezovsky, in a remarkable interview published March 25 in the Moscow Times: “I am often asked …: Do you think Putin will jail you when he comes to power? I say: Of course he might. Why not? If it seems rational to him, if he’s a regular politician then he should. It’s his duty.” Whether Berezovsky or another, there is no lack of candidates for the role of defendant in a show trial.
* The domestic political system will be tweaked and jimmied to return to the presidency the power that has leached away from the office in the past few years. Putin wants the presidential term extended to seven years. He has talked about ending the special privileges of ethnic republics like Tatarstan that have “treaty” arrangements with the federal government. He says he will not try to end direct election of regional governors, but he may instead reinstitute the Tsarist office of governor general, naming seven or eight presidential satraps to coordinate policies in new super-regions.
* Media criticism will be tolerated so long as it is aimed at corruption, malfeasance and disorder, and so long as it reflects popular discontent. But any outlet that acts to undermine presidential reforms or presidential prestige, or harps on “elite” concerns like freedom of speech and human rights, will be squeezed and harassed until its audience dwindles and its balance sheet shrivels. Media-MOST properties like the NTV television network, which publicized Russian losses and criticized Russian conduct in the Chechen war, are already under pressure.
* Foreign relations will turn on the restoration of Russian power and diplomatic influence. Russia cannot project much force abroad, but Putin will use the tools he has: the ethnic Russian populations in the former Soviet Union, possession of the technology of weapons of mass destruction, and the propaganda pulpits the West has provided in NATO’s Permanent Joint Council and the Group of Seven. A new draft Foreign Policy Concept paper awaiting Putin’s approval reportedly emphasizes economic issues and calibrates foreign policy objectives to “the genuine capabilities and resources of the country.”
Russia could do a lot worse than Putin and has often done so. The West could do worse too. A Russia that is more orderly if less free; more intent on regulated development than on get-rich-quick lawlessness; more stridently nationalistic in diplomacy but still pragmatic in building areas of cooperation–that is no rogue state. If Putin has his way, Russia could become an always difficult, often unpleasant and sometimes horrifying member of the world community. In other words, what everyone wants Russia to be: a normal country.