By Aleksandr Tsipko
It is worth remembering first what Russia’s political analysts wrote and said about Putin’s likely policies a year ago, on the eve of the new millennium, if only to appreciate what a thankless task it is trying to predict our president’s actions and decisions.
At that time, many leading publications wrote that in 2001 Putin, with his preference for simple decisionmaking, would add to his ‘command of the political high ground’ a new ‘command of the economic high ground’. This was a perfectly legitimate prediction. Only by taking direct control of the main wealth of Russia–its natural assets–could he realize his ambitious plans to reinforce the vertical of power and to re-equip the army. Putin’s desire to consolidate behind him the ‘majority’ which supported him and secure the backing of the ordinary people was seen as further evidence in support of this theory. It was widely said and written that Putin, unlike Yeltsin, would rely not on the liberal minority and the democrats, but on the people–the traditionalist majority. But this majority, as is clear, disapproved more than anyone else of the privatization of the fuel and energy sector, which, in their view, should have remained in the nation’s hands. So, many experts expected that Putin, who greatly valued his high popularity rating, would take a risk and make concessions to this revanchist tendency. This seemed especially likely as the outcome of the privatization had also displeased the former military men and ex-KGB colleagues who make up Putin’s inner circle. Everything seemed to point to the suggestion that Putin would most likely decide to hold his version of the “20th Party Congress” while avoiding any personal attack on Yeltsin, and would sooner or later denounce both his predecessor’s antipopulist shock therapy and its underlying liberal romanticism. Moreover, such a move, in the view of many analysts, would pull away the electoral base from the feet of the communists, who were exploiting the public discontent with the radical economic reforms for their own political purposes.
Not one of these predictions actually came to pass, at least not in a pure form. Putin not only failed to overturn the market reforms or renationalize the fuel and energy sector, but on the contrary finished the job and completed the economic revolution begun by Gaidar. Laws were enacted on the unrestricted sale of nonarable land and on Russia’s lowest ever unified tax rate, and many of the obstacles blocking the development of small and medium-scale businesses were removed. Putin even raised the issue of liberalizing the outflow of capital. Not only did he refrain from extending a hand of friendship to the communists and the groups supporting them, but he abandoned once and for all his previous good relations with the Communist Party (KPRF) and Zyuganov. Despite anti-Western sentiments, after September 11 he adopted an active policy of rapprochement with the United States and the West. He reinforced his liberal line on the economy with this ‘Atlantic’ line in his foreign policy, and consented to the maximum possible integration of Russia into the international community that the West could handle. Not only did he not interfere with results of privatization turned out; on the contrary, in a whole series of speeches he indicated his approval of the transfer of property that had taken place in Russia.
And now comes the most important question: What is the significance of Putin’s change of direction over the last year, at least in relation to the populist-patriotic line that had been expected of him? Is there a fundamental change of outlook behind Putin’s swing towards the West and a liberal economy, or is it all the cunning ruse of a professional secret agent? Will Putin continue to move in the direction he has taken in 2001?
It seems to me that there really has been a new world view underlying Putin’s policies in 2001. We simply failed to appreciate its nature, the nature of his St. Petersburg patriotism, and therefore expected him to act in a way that is probably incompatible with his inner principles and convictions. Putin is certainly no fan of ‘collectivism’ as a working method. Neither, of course, is he a committed opponent of western civilization, like the patriots of the KPRF. His patriotism is very closely linked with a respect for western culture, of which his own native city is an inalienable part. The main mistake made in past forecasts is that we have too frequently identified Putin’s personal view of the world with the expectations and sentiments of those who voted him in.
Of course, the key to understanding Putin and the criteria he will use to select his new team, is in the peculiarities and psychology of his world view which, I repeat, differs in so many respects from the Soviet, communist patriotism which continues to dominate the length and breadth of Russia.
Putin is undoubtedly motivated by a desire to resurrect Russia as a world power. But at the same time, what he wants is not so much to strengthen Russia as a state, as to strengthen her authority in Europe. Like Peter the Great and Catherine the Great before him, he is motivated rather by a desire that Russia should be one amongst equals and take her place in the community of European nations.
Putin is not just acting the part of an Orthodox believer. There is every reason for saying that, despite his communist past, he has embraced the church willingly, consciously, and with an open heart. But in his brand of Orthodoxy there is no place for the active antipathy towards the West which can be seen in Zyuganov’s faith. Don’t forget that all the leaders of today’s KPRF, who still call themselves communists, are churchgoers. But their religion contains much that is isolationist and anti-Western. All the indications are that what we see in Putin is a highly organic fusion of the drive to establish a powerful state in the imperial, St. Petersburg sense, a pro-Western outlook that recognizes Russia’s part in European history and culture, and the traditional Russian sense of identity that is expressed in the Orthodox faith. This is why Putin has taken the path of liberal reform, combining efforts to regenerate the armed forces and promote new respect for the uniformed services, with the forging of a new alliance with Europe.
It is impossible to understand anything in Russian politics if you ignore the substantial regional variations in our mentalities. Gorbachev was a typical representative of southern Russia. This is the Little Russia whose natives are known for their openness, sociability, even verbosity, and for their ability to enjoy life to the full. The sons of the Northern capital on the Neva are quite another matter, especially once they are in power. Even the Leningrad group who were executed by Stalin in the late 1940s differed quite markedly from the other members of the Politburo of the day (and for the better), with their intellect, their openness to the West–as far as was possible at the time–and their striking capacity for hard work. The Putin set today have much greater freedom of choice and can therefore give more public voice to the specific features of their thinking: Their taste for the short, pithy sentence, their undisguised asceticism, their disapproval of any kind of excess and the emphasis they place quite consciously on their preference for modesty and moderation.
I think that Putin’s team selection is based not on local connections or personal preference, but on intellectual considerations, namely the criteria arising from his St. Petersburg patriotism. This can be seen especially in the selection of the key members of his team.
In Russia at present, and especially in the liberal media, there is much criticism of Putin for his close relationship with the Orthodox banker, Sergei Pugachev. He is known for his piety, his wide-ranging charitable activities and his closeness to the hierarchy of the Orthodox church. In my view, Putin is justified in this choice from all points of view–political, economic, moral and psychological. If we really are witnessing the restoration of a non-communist Russia, then it is essential that people appear on the political scene who personify Russian tradition, and that includes the Russian entrepreneurs and merchants of earlier times. Only businessmen of this kind stand a chance of contributing to Russian life, becoming an organic part of it and making the current market reforms stick. The only complication and danger in the situation is that, so far, the kind of Russian business that the Yeltsin family relied on bore little relation to traditional Russia in either form or substance.
I believe that the reinforcement of Putin’s team with the new Speaker of the Federation Council, Sergei Mironov, has also been a success. He would never have become the government’s number three man, of course, had he not been from St. Petersburg and if he had not been working alongside Putin under Sobchak. But all the same, if we are to be objective, he has many fine attributes, and he embodied the very best qualities of the people of the city on the Neva. He is educated, a graduate of four institutes of higher education, including schools of economics and law. He spent fourteen years in his first profession as a geologist, constantly working away on expeditions. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he proved to be a successful and talented businessman and at the same time a traditional Russian patriot, supporting his country.
This analysis convinces me that we must not regard the process begun in recent weeks of replacing the Yeltsin set, the so-called Family, with Putin’s men as in any way accidental, or dictated only by the birthplace of our president.
Everything becomes clear, especially in Putin’s staffing policy, if we remember that we in Russia are facing not only the transformation of the communist system, and a transition from totalitarianism to democracy, but a belated counter-revolution, and a belated restoration of the Russia of old.
We did not understand this at first, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, after December 1991, there was some hope that it would be possible to build a new Russia from scratch, as a successor to the imperial regime of the Czars and the Communist empire of the Soviets. The liberals, those sons of the August revolution of 1991, who were Yeltsin’s chief advisers, were working towards just this end: To build Russia according to an ideology based on individual rights and freedoms. But at some point in 1998 they realized that the concept of building a new Russia would not gain popular support, and that they would have to switch from their revolutionary struggle with the past to a recreation of the traditional Russian state. And then they brought Putin into the political arena, to embody these hopes for the restoration of Russian statehood.
And this is the key to understanding the conflict between the Family and the siloviki from St. Petersburg. The family’s experts and analysts did of course play a positive role in the history of postcommunist Russia. They managed to provide a natural, historic transition of power from Yeltsin, the destroyer of Communism, to Putin, the savior of the Russian state. The contribution made by the old team was in ensuring that this was a smooth and bloodless transition. What was also important was that the handover of power improved the prospects for democratic and market reforms.
But the whole problem, and indeed the drama of it, is that, chiefly as a result of their revolutionary provenance, the people who brought Putin the patriot and statesman to power do not themselves fit in with the ideology and practices of the new regime. Gleb Pavlovsky, Valentin Yumashev and Aleksandr Voloshin can somehow never bring themselves to make speeches about the rebirth of the Russian state, the Orthodox roots of Russian culture and the greatness of the Russian land. As members of the intelligentsia, atheists, or merely as men of the world, it is very hard for them to stand as symbols of the new mood and the processes of this restoration. This is a role better suited to the Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, Metropolitan Kirill or even Viktor Chernomyrdin. But the rebirth of a Russia desecrated by the Bolsheviks simply cannot be masterminded by the chief administrators and ideologists of the Family.
The role is really best suited to the siloviki from St. Petersburg, now that they have returned to the bosom of the Orthodox church. In them can be seen a synthesis of all the qualities needed for the political and ideological challenges of today’s transitional period. These people are linked, by their professional careers, to the service of the state, and to the exercise and strengthening of authority. They are defined both by their Russian patriotism and by their traditional Russian identification with Orthodoxy. Yet they remain pro-Western. While their previous careers as military men allow them to represent a continuity with the Soviet era, in their identification with Russian and Orthodox ideas they also represent a link with prerevolutionary Russia, and above all with the Russia of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. And so, as sons of the civilized world of St. Petersburg, these men are receptive to the West, albeit the conservative aspect of the West.
All this indicates that if Putin remains in power, he will in the end have no choice but to make changes in his personal elite, above all in the Kremlin team. He will need to take a philosophical approach to this task. The change will most probably not be a revolutionary one, but the spotlight will be on the new occupants of the key posts.
Aleksandr Tsipko is a senior associate at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for International Economic and Political Research and a columnist for Literaturnaya Gazeta.