Andropov’s Legacy In Putin’s Foreign Policy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 34

On June 15, Russia celebrated the 90th birthday of the late Yuri Andropov, secretary general of the Communist Party (CPSU) for 15 months and the head of the KGB for 15 years. Marking historical dates on the calendar has traditionally been a key part of Russian political discourse, both officially and unofficially. But the stream of commentary in the Russian media transcended the cursory; a distinct anxiety is recognizable, as if commentators have been trying to guess what screw President Vladimir Putin will turn next in Russia. Putin has hidden his admiration for Andropov in the past. So recent initiatives to erect a monument to him in Petrozavodsk (Gazeta, 9 June, EDM June 9) or to rename a school and a tanker in his honor seem to align with Putin’s 1999 decision to re-install a special plaque on the Lubyanka building, headquarters of the KGB (Polit, 15 June; Grani, 15 June).

Most media commentaries resemble political weather forecasts, seeking to compare Putin’s current reform efforts with Andropov’s orders to tighten “discipline” in the early 1980s. Thus, the theme “Putin is Andropov today” has been catching in Russia, ever since it was introduced in a lengthy television documentary made by Andrei Konchalovsky (Grani, 29 March). However, there are distinguishable lines drawn by Andropov’s hand that are reflected in Putin’s foreign policy. The tightly, even hermetically, closed nature of decision-making is certainly the most obvious feature (see Russia Eurasia Review, 2001). This strategy allows Putin the advantage of a “surprise attack”, which he has launched several times. More importantly, Andropov, unlike other gerontocrats in the Soviet party elite, insisted on a proactive hard-driven policy — and Putin follows suit, not shying away from yes-or-no decisions, as Putin has demonstrated regarding the US war in Iraq. At the same time, Andropov was unlike Mikhail Suslov who demonstrated his uncompromising adherence to dogma. Rather Andropov took lessons learned from the 1962 Cuban missile crisis to heart, mastering the skills of compromise. Consequently, Putin has made “pragmatism” a focal point of his policy. He had few doubts regarding the closing of outdated military bases in Cuba and Vietnam and accepted calmly the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. However, Putin is also an opportunist, always searching for the opportunity to score a point. For that matter, Russia’s April 22 veto in the United Nations Security Council on the issue of a referendum in Cyprus — that duly failed a few days later — was a masterstroke (Izvestia, 22 April).

There are certainly serious differences between Andropov and Putin. Andropov was a true believer in a comprehensive intellectual effort, demonstrated by his regular consultations with the Central Committee, a team of the “best and the brightest” (Izvestia, 15 June). Conversely, Putin has little trust in “expert wisdom,” preferring to rely on loyal sycophants and public relations wizards. And unlike the desk-bound and indefatigable Andropov, Putin prefers to get away from the office, adopting the leadership style of a “commanding road warrior” (Nezavisimaia gazeta, 16 June).

While these parallels are somewhat entertaining, they may only be stretched so far. It is noteworthy that there is one specific area where Andropov’s legacy appears quite relevant. For about 10 years before taking charge of the KGB, Andropov led the Central Committee’s department on Soviet relations with “brother socialist’ states.” Coincidentally, Putin builds relations with the CIS states along remarkably similar lines. Andropov’s attention was predominantly focused on a handful of top party nomenklatura, and Putin also relentlessly cultivates personal ties with post-Soviet leaders. For example, he might not be an admirer of Belarus’ blustering President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, but he clearly understands the value of such a reference point in the European community’s dialogue on democracy-building; Russia’s record looks halfway decent relative to Belarus. With regard to Ukraine, Putin may disapprove of President Leonid Kuchma’s tolerance for political opposition, but he still extends his every support during crucial election battles (Moskovskie novosti, 2 June).

Vanity could have been less a factor in Andropov’s policies. But Putin visibly enjoys every small privilege of the first-among-the-not-so-equals’ status. He has been trained sufficiently so as not to reveal any disappointment at being treated as a lesser member of the G8, or at the obvious neglect of his presence during recent D-Day ceremonies (Kommersant, 7 June; Izvestiya, 11 June). Nonetheless, Putin basks as the center of attention at Central Asian summits, low content as they usually are. He went to Tashkent on June 17 and will be staying in Astana for the weekend, patiently building a new Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) rather than a “liberal empire” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 17). The largest influence of Andropov’s legacy is unwavering readiness to assert Russia’s dominance over its “satellites,” with tanks if need be. Putin has so far refrained from such heavy-handedness, but this daunting comparison might still be in the making.