By Aleksandr Tsipko
Everyone in Russia feels that the year 2000 brought some positive changes, but not everyone realizes that all Putin’s victories thus far have only affected the realms of consciousness. As yet one can speak only of an improvement in the moral and political climate in the country, brought about by a restored belief that the Russian state can survive. For a significant section of the population, the sense of shame that they have to “live in this god-forsaken country” and the feelings of confusion, despair and depression engendered by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disruption of their normal way of life are being replaced by self-belief, composure and the conviction that there is a light at the end of this tortuous tunnel.
The Russian people’s natural feeling of involvement in their own lives and the life of the state is returning, and the atomization of society caused by shock therapy and the destruction of the old Soviet economy is gradually being redressed. Even the small, so-called “adapted” section of the population is beginning to defer to the demands of state discipline. This is evinced by the 100 percent increase in the amount of tax collected in 2000.
A “majority” of the population is now rallying around the new patriotic state ideology and the new leader because of the drive to restore strong power–or a strong power “vertical,” in the current phrase–and because of the policy of reestablishing Russia as an independent world power.
For people with a poorly developed sense of national awareness–which is probably a feature not only of Russia–Putin has returned to them what they had been accustomed to for centuries: The sense that they had an independent state which was capable of defending them against external threats. In Russia, where spiritual and ideological problems are always predominant, a restored faith in the future and in national statehood is extremely valuable.
It would be wrong to think that this turning point in the public mood, this focus on the desire for a strong state capable of ensuring the safety of its citizens, only emerged after the terrorist attacks in Moscow in September 1999, or after the start of the second Chechen war. The patriotic mood which Putin tapped into in the fall of 1999 had been around for a long time, since at least early 1993. It is simply that for a long time the ruling liberal elite which came to power on the back of the democratic revolution of August 1991 ignored this lack of patriotism and strong state power. In fact most Russians very quickly–by mid-1992–became disenchanted with the illusions surrounding the break-up of the Soviet Union and the conversion of the RSFSR into an independent state. This same majority was even more disillusioned by the market reforms which engendered a sharp decline in the standard of living. Against this background, the watershed of 1992-93 threw up the need for a restoration of strong power capable of ensuring personal safety and a dignified way of life. But the reformers in power did not pay heed to these sentiments, and pursued their reforms at the cost of the destruction of the state and the impoverishment of a significant section of the population. Incidentally, this syndrome of national humiliation, brought on by the failed reforms and the general destabilization in the country caused by the break-up of the Soviet Union, was long exploited by the Left in Russia, primarily the KPRF.
It is not clear what would have happened to Russia had our ruling democratic elite not come to their senses and eventually taken this statist and patriotic ideology away from the Left, particularly the KPRF, and given priority to the task of restoring the integrity of the country, particularly highlighting the struggle with the breakaway Chechen republic as a task of national importance.
The conflict between the Russian Congress of People’s Deputies and the president which culminated in the tragic events of October 3-4, 1993 was caused by precisely this discontent of a significant section of the population–not just the communist avengers–with Yeltsin’s foreign and domestic policies which were blatantly ignoring Russian national dignity. National awareness and national dignity were also oppressed by the market reforms implemented under the guidance of foreign advisers, including Mr. Sachs, and by the defeatist foreign policy of Kozyrev, who would say “yes” even when the West expected him to say “no.” Yeltsin had the opportunity, immediately after his election for a second term, to exploit the potential of this lack of patriotic ideology. But for some unknown reason Yeltsin handed over all the benefits of changing course to his successor.
It is true that the ruling elite derived some benefit from this delay. The more deeply-rooted this national humiliation syndrome became, the greater the effect of the revival from above of the ideas of patriotism and strong power, and the greater the hopes vested in the new leader. The second Chechen war, which began in August 1992 after an incursion by Wahhabis into Dagestan, was a key factor in the consolidation of Russian society, contrary to the expectations of the intelligentsia.
Just as Gorbachev’s huge popularity in the early days of perestroika in 1986-88 was due to the fact that he gave people what they most craved–freedom of speech–so Putin’s huge popularity today is due to his elimination of the desperate lack of a patriotic, independent policy over the last decade. Putin’s policy to restore strong statehood is seen by many ordinary people as a national liberation struggle, the struggle of a colony for independence. This perception of Putin’s independent line in foreign and domestic policy is also a result of the Clinton administration’s overly intrusive obsession with the quality and consistency of market reforms in Russia.
But this is also where the risks and dangers for Putin’s regime begin. First, this popularity–which is based only on moral and political factors, and at the root of which lies either faith or hope–is very fragile. It may collapse in the wake of another shift in the public mood. As soon as the need for a patriotic ideology and for independence is satisfied, the demand for more tangible things, such as a palpable growth in wealth, may become more acute.
Like many of his predecessors, solving moral and political problems comes more easily to Putin than solving social and economic problems. He is very active in anything to do with ideology, the political system and the alignment of political forces, but he has so far been passive and failed to take a firm position on anything to do with the economy. The gulf between today’s far-reaching reforms in anything affecting the ideology of the state and the cosmetic changes in the economy may become the Achilles heel of the Putin administration. In the superstructure and in politics we can see the will, the drive and determination to see things through to the end. But in the economy, conversely, we see a passive hope that things will develop automatically, of their own accord. It is also difficult to explain his passivity in anything to do with the crime problem. Putin has taken charge of notorious contract killings, but has made no progress.
The threats to Putin’s authority and to political stability will increase quickly as today’s extensive opportunities for development are exhausted, and as the assets bequeathed to us from the Soviet Union become completely obsolete (and this will happen soon). Moreover, in today’s market conditions, when the desire for wealth and a comfortable life is particularly acute, it is difficult to maintain stability and consensus purely on the basis of ideology and political victories.
There is a certain similarity between Gorbachev’s authority and Putin’s. In both cases their huge popularity was achieved because of an ideological breakthrough. Gorbachev’s glasnost rehabilitated truth, ethics and common human values. Putin has rehabilitated Russian patriotism, national dignity, statist integrity and the consolidation of Russian statehood.
Putin has not only put an end to the national humiliation syndrome and liberated the national consciousness from oppression, but has also established the main political conditions for preserving Russian statehood. The second Chechen war has drawn a line under the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restyled RSFSR.