By Elena Chinyaeva
A year has passed since last August, when Boris Yeltsin, the ailing president, appointed Vladimir Putin as the prime minister of Russia. Given that Putin, who was then head of Federal Security Service (FSB), the security service, was virtually unknown to general public and seemed to have no political influence, this appointment was generally perceived as another erratic leap of Russian ruler’s irrational logic. A year later, there is no doubt that Putin, now already the president, will go down in the annals of modern Russian history as one of its most significant figures. Having won the March presidential elections, Vladimir Putin started a series of radical administrative and economic reforms to fulfill his pre-election promise of “putting things in order.”
Last year’s parliamentary elections demonstrated that the initial strategy chosen by the Kremlin was right: To continue reforms, the executive branch needed a cooperative parliament. The efforts spent to achieve this goal have paid off–Putin acquired in the parliament a much-needed lever, which his predecessor unfortunately lacked, to enable him to start his bold innovations in politics and economics. However, the recent scandals surrounding Russia’s most influential businessmen and the controversy surrounding the Kremlin’s efforts to consolidate a “vertical of state power” indicate that the main question–what sort of “order” is it supposed to be?–remains unanswered.
The most important result of the Russian parliamentary elections which took place on December 19, 1999, was a new configuration in the Russian parliament. The Communists and their left-wing allies lost their majority, raising hopes that for the first time in ten years of reforms, the main legislative organ would not be in stubborn opposition to the government.
The results surpassed all expectations: Not only did the new parliament approve most of the draft legislation presented by the president and the government, it has also in some cases gone further, voting into law more radical versions of those drafts. In order to finish the most pressing legislative initiatives, the parliament even postponed its vacations for two weeks. During a special session on July 19, deputies approved a new version of a draft law on reforming the Federation Council, overcame a Federation Council veto of the legislation laying out the responsibilities of the heads of the regions and approved four chapters of a new tax code. In doing so, they fully supported the reformist zeal of the new Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
Having been named by Yeltsin to be his successor, Putin campaigned for the presidency on a platform of “putting things in order.” Details on how he planned to do this were unclear, given that he was the only candidate who did not present his program on the eve of the elections. Still, Putin won the presidential race in late March with a slim majority of 52 percent. After Putin’s victory, the Kremlin convinced the State Duma to ratify the START-2 agreement, which since 1993 had been sabotaged by the previous Duma. This was a much-needed step which allowed the new president to begin a vigorous foreign policy.
As for domestic politics, the president managed to hold his cards close to his chest until mid-May, when he came forward with a series of important legislation initiatives aimed at consolidating federal power while his government introduced into the parliament a draft tax code which included a radical reduction in taxes. The ideology of the new legislative initiatives corresponded to the president’s initial intention to establish “order,” though hardly anyone expected that he would do it in such a radical way. The main thrust of the planned changes is to build a strong state with a strong liberal economy in which all individuals, regardless of their economic and political status, have equal rights and responsibilities.
The president has overcome the opposition of the Federation Council, the upper house of the parliament, which has finally voted for its own reformation. In the future, Russian regions shall be represented in the Federation Council not by the heads of the regions but by their representatives, whom the governors have limited powers to hire and fire. The reform has to be completed over a year and a half, by which time all the current governors will have finished their terms in office. As a result, the Federation Council shall cease to be an independent center of power and a source of regional separatism. Thanks to the tax reforms, Russia will become a tax haven: A new flat rate of 13 percent has been introduced to coax the shadow economy into the light. Other taxes have also been lowered, opening new prospects for entrepreneurial initiative.
However, the parliamentary revolution, as some observers hurried to call the new cooperation between the executive and the legislative branches, has been accompanied by a series of scandals involving well-known businessmen. Media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky was briefly arrested, while criminal investigations procedures were also launched against holding Norilsk Nickel, the world’s biggest producer of nickel, the giant LUKoil oil company, and AvtoVAZ, producer of the Lada car. All of the cases involved charges either of illegal privatization or of tax evasion. Taking into account that in the atmosphere of legal confusion and anarchy which has reigned in Russia, any entrepreneur could be found “guilty” of this or that misdemeanor, these actions, however well-intended, raise disturbing questions about the real goals of the campaign to consolidate power. Some see it as a signal for a new redistribution of property and an attack by the state on the rights of the individual.
The consolidation of state power in Russia is an important and timely undertaking. But the quality of the existing legal system, left virtually intact from the Stalinist days, is hardly satisfactory for the successful execution of such an ambitious goal. In recent years, law enforcement agencies have been like a pendulum, swinging dangerously between two extremes–the impossibility of fulfilling their duties and widespread legal willfulness. Almost all attempts to bring cases involving prominent Russian business people or public figures to court have failed because the investigators and Prosecutor General’s Office were invariably accused of doing it on somebody’s “political orders.” On the other hand, the combination of an outdated legal code together and a tradition of legal negligence have created the basis for widespread abuses of the law. For instance, a person can be detained for ten days without formal charges, those arrested are often prevented from contacting their lawyers, those detained are rarely released on bail, etc. There is an obvious need to review the status of the prosecutor general, who in fact is not controlled by anybody or anything.
It can only be hoped that the recent scandals will provoke the Russian public to demand reform of the legal and judicial system. Without it the current attempt to strengthen the executive power in Russia might hinder the completion of the main goal for which it has, hopefully, been undertaken–the creation of an effective economy, which is possible only with a strong democratic state.
ANOTHER CATASTROPHIC AUGUST
August, a month of relaxation and holidays in most countries, has become a permanent test of endurance for the Russian people. The August 1991 putsch led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the August 1998 devaluation of ruble started the deepest-ever economic crisis in Russia, the August 1999 explosions in Moscow led to the second Chechen war. August 2000 was particularly grim. First, a bomb exploded in a underground passage in Moscow, leaving twelve people dead, then the submarine Kursk sunk with 108 sailors on board, and finally the Ostankino TV tower caught fire, killing four people and disrupting TV broadcasting in the capital and the Moscow region–two of the most politically and economically important provinces of Russia.
The Russian submarine tragedy–the first such military accident to receive international publicity–demonstrated that the world is not ready to cope with such cases, either technically or mentally. While Western media reports were overflowing with gloating commentary on the inferiority of Russian technology and the KGB-style military secrecy, the Russian mass media were busy stirring up nationwide hysteria, deftly exploiting people’s emotions and their general dissatisfaction with post-perestroika life. The greater point was lost on most observers: if we are indeed entering a new era of globalization, the international community must find a way to deal in concert with technological accidents–which are likely to proliferate given the inevitability of continuing technological development–as well as with large-scale natural calamities, such as last year’s devastating earthquake in Turkey. To accomplish this, not only must specialized international agencies be created, but more importantly, international public opinion will have to be prepared to see such incidents as par for the course. In the context of the disagreement with the United States over the development of its Anti-Missile Defense system, Putin has already proposed setting up an international early warning system, which supposedly is more effective and realistic than the various Star Wars scenarios on the table now. Last year, following the disastrous earthquake in Turkey, the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry proposed the establishment of an international agency to deal with natural and technological disasters. The response in the democratic and technologically advanced West to both proposals has been muted.
If these and other steps could have helped Putin build the image of a strong but flexible and broadminded leader as he went around the world, the Kursk disaster undoubtedly did a lot of damage to his image. Putin did not react adequately, giving the international and Russian mass media enough grounds to accuse him of attempting at a cover-up and the Russian military of being incompetent. Over a matter of a few days Putin lost advantages he had gained over the course of months. Partly, it was his own fault: He should have returned to Moscow from his holidays to take personal control over the situation. Partly, he fell victim to a new round of domestic political rifts. A number of journalists who have been at war with the Kremlin over the “freedom of press” issue, conspicuously related to the ownership problem of the mass media they work for, welcomed the Kursk incident as a new ammunition in the conflict, accusing the government, the president, the navy fleet, the army, the politicians and other journalists of being responsible for the tragedy, as well as for other recent tragedies which have hit the country.
However, the tragedies of this August underscored the obvious fact that Putin faces enormous difficulties, given that he has to govern a country which has not been properly looked after for at least a decade. Russia’s post-Soviet transition period left its infrastructure unattended, which increases the danger of technological catastrophes in the future. This danger must be coupled with the factor of terrorism and economic hardships. Everything has to be reformed at the same time–all problems, including the state of the armed forces, the economy, education, industry, mass media and so on, are equally pressing–and this is a task beyond human capacity. It has been a very difficult year for Vladimir Putin, and more difficult times lie ahead.
Elena Chinyaeva, who holds a doctorate in modern history from Oxford University, is a writer with the leading Russian political weekly Kommersant-Vlast.