March 26 marked the second anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s election as president and the halfway point in his term. And while there was much about which the head of state could justifiably brag–above all the country’s continuing economic growth and the public’s continuing approval of his performance–elite opinion was more divided over his record than might have been expected.
Not surprisingly, one of the more glowing reviews of Putin’s record came in an analysis provided by the state’s RIA Novosti news agency. It noted that Russia’s foreign debt problem, which some observers a few short years ago warned could trigger an economic meltdown in 2003, had “receded into the background,” while fears that Putin’s accession would lead to a revival of “militarization and imperialism” had proved groundless. Meanwhile, Putin’s federative reforms–including the creation of seven federal districts, a consultative State Council in which regional governors enjoy “the right of direct contact with the federal president” and new procedures for forming the Federation Council, the parliament’s upper chamber–had furthered his goal of “arranging federal rule as rationally as possible.” This, in turn, had opened up the possibility for “harmonious contacts” between the state and “an emergent civil society in the free democratic country into which Russian ought to evolve,” RIA Novosti opined. Still, “formidable barriers” to progress remained, above all the ongoing war in Chechnya, a “bloated” bureaucracy and officials intent on “strangling” free speech, especially in the provinces.
Other observers were less sanguine about Putin’s record at midterm. If the Yeltsin era had seen the so-called oligarchs rise to dominance over state officials, the Putin era had seen a “bureaucratic renaissance,” particularly for security service officials, Moskovsky Komsomolets wrote. In fact, the paper claimed, some of Putin’s key reforms had brought about results diametrically opposed to their declared intentions.
One such example was the Kremlin’s restructuring of the Federation Council, by which regional leaders lost their automatic representation in the upper parliamentary chamber–along with parliamentary immunity from criminal prosecution–but were allowed to appoint their replacements. While the aim of this move, among other things, was to reduce the regional leaders’ power to influence federal policy, it had in fact created new opportunities for large-scale graft: Moskovsky Komsomolets, citing “well-informed and trustworthy sources,” reported that Federation Council seats had been sold initially for $500,000, but that the price had gone up as high as $4 million as the number of spots dwindled.
In addition, the paper declared it was a “myth” that Putin had managed to impose control and discipline over the state apparatus using the special services and other law enforcement bodies like the Prosecutor General’s Office. In reality, the state apparatus was the true winner of Putin’s attempt to recentralize power, Moskovsky Komsomolets wrote: “With the parliament and the media already tamed, the president has found himself a hostage of the security structures and the state apparatus as creators of his informational menu.” Meanwhile, the paper asserted that the state apparatus, as in the Yeltsin years, remained divided into warring clans, and that corruption within it had grown “enormously” under Putin, giving state officials “many more opportunities to line their pockets.” If true, this represented quite a feat, given the Yeltsin era’s rampant bureaucratic malfeasance.