Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 7

By Aleksandr Tsipko

The new political realities in Russia are as yet in the early stages of assessment and cognition. There is a general sense that since the parliamentary elections of December 1999 and the early presidential elections of March 2000 we have been living in a different country. At an existentialist level, the new Russia is depicted above all as more stable and settled.

The growing feeling is that Putin is trying, above all, to make the country more governable, and to remove all those who tried to block his coming to power from the political stage. There can be no doubt that Putin has more control over the situation in the country than Yeltsin did, and that the potential for various political cataclysms and palace coups, let alone for clashes between the public and the authorities, is greatly reduced. Until its last moments, there were several alternatives for political development within Yeltsin’s Russia. In this sense it was still a country in democratic revolution. This period of revolutionary fragmentation, which began with Gorbachev’s perestroika, is now nearing its end. Nevertheless, to form a true image of Putin’s new Russia, a special structural analysis is needed of the political system being established here. If we look at the continuity between Yeltsin’s political regime and Putin’s, it is clear that there is a great deal more of the old in our lives than of the fundamentally new. To develop this theme further, we need to answer three related questions. How is the continuation between Yeltsin’s political regime and Putin’s manifested? What has Putin actually managed to do to improve the political situation in Russia? Will the current stabilization of the political situation be used to continue democratic and market reforms? In response to these three questions, I will discuss, respectively, the negative aspects of the new political situation, the positive aspects, and the consequent chances for civilized development in Russia.


First, the so-called elective constitutional autocracy of the president is not only being preserved, it is being strengthened. After the military confrontation between Yeltsin and the rebel Supreme Soviet in the autumn of 1993, a regime was established which is democratic in form but autocratic in content, and, in this sense, traditional for Russia. The power of the current president towers above all other branches of power, just as the power of the general secretary of the CPSU did. According to Yeltsin’s constitution, the president is not accountable to any one form of power, but enjoys simultaneous control of the power structures and the main sources of finance and information. This regime, in transition from communist totalitarianism to democracy, is qualitatively different from the transitional regimes in the postcommunist countries of Eastern Europe. Essentially, it does not possess any of the necessary prerequisites for the democratic continuity of power, for creating a multiparty system or for ensuring that democratic forces have the freedom to function.

The way in which Putin came to power demonstrated that the outgoing president is succeeded by the man who is either prime minister or acting president at the time of the transfer of power–the man who controls the power structures and the main financial and information sources at the time of the presidential elections. Russia’s postcommunist regime is an autocratic one which grew out of the debris of the parliamentary republic of 1991-93, the debris of the Russian Congress of People’s Deputies. Of course, some elements of representative democracy still exist. The Kremlin’s appointed successor has to be “elected.” But this is just a technical issue. Russia’s traditional administrative resources and election technology allow any reasonably attractive candidate the Kremlin chooses to be fashioned into an electable president. The phrase which best captures the essence of our political regime is “controllable democracy.” The autocracy of the elected president in Russia is further consolidated by the criminal, semi-legal nature of capitalism here. Almost all the large fortunes in Russia were amassed as a result of the appropriation of former state property which was not only hasty but which was accompanied by gross violations of the law. Against this background, the country’s leader is in a position to prosecute any businessman, as the arrest of Vladimir Gusinsky showed. Thus, as a rule, nobody involved in business risks playing an opposition role.

Second, given such a political system, and such a mechanism for transferring power, the head of state is not so much accountable to the people who elected him as to the previous occupants of the Kremlin, who gave him a head start in the presidential elections. The formation of Putin’s first government demonstrated that as yet he remains fully dependent on Yeltsin’s so- called “family.” Putin still has to clear his main personnel decisions with those who proposed him for the role of president of Russia–i.e. Yeltsin’s daughter Tatyana Dyachenko and her colleagues Valentin Yumashev, Alexander Voloshin, Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich.

The clearest indication of this is provided by the intrigue surrounding the appointment of the prosecutor general, who is in effect one of the key players in our crime-ridden country. He who controls the prosecutor general is the true master of the Kremlin, because he is in a position to protect his people from prosecution. This is why Putin quite naturally tried to nominate his friend and ally Dmitry Kozak, head of the government secretariat, for the job. His appointment was even announced in the media, and Putin actually drafted the first official request to the Federation Council in Dmitry Kozak’s name. It was expected that the senators would endorse him as prosecutor general the same day. But it was then reported in the media that Tatyana Dyachenko and Valentin Yumashev visited Putin in the late evening of 15 May and persuaded him to drop his original plan and nominate the acting Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov instead of Kozak. As a result, the new prosecutor general is the man renowned for closing the case against Boris Berezovsky.

As yet, Putin is a dependent figure; as president he is surrounded on all sides by Yeltsin’s appointees and placemen. All the key figures in authority–the so-called power ministers, Defense Minister Sergeev, Interior Minister Rushailo, FSB chief Patrushev, and Prosecutor General Ustinov, not to mention Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov–are all Yeltsin’s people, or (to be more precise) the “Family’s” people. This is why his detractors dub Putin the “acting Yeltsin.”

Third, under Putin the so-called problem of the oligarchs still remains, at least for the time being. The essence of this problem lies in the combination of property and power. The oligarchs acquired their huge fortunes by virtue of their closeness to Yeltsin, Gaidar, Chernomyrdin and Chubais. Then, by dint of their wealth and financial clout, the oligarchs began to play a decisive role–greater than that of the representative organs–in the domestic and foreign policy of the country’s leaders. Just as they did under Yeltsin, the oligarchs still exercise firm control over Putin’s policies with regard to the redistribution of property. The oligarch Gusinsky used to have a huge influence on the president’s personnel decisions. Now, alongside Sibneft boss Abramovich, center stage belongs to Aven and Fridman, who own the Alfa group.


Nevertheless, by virtue of his youth, energy and capacity for hard work, Putin has managed to improve the situation in Russia. This is because, given the absence of civil society and the underdeveloped state of the democratic institutions, the will of the Kremlin boss is still the main historical factor. While Yeltsin mainly used his power to hold sway and enjoy his supreme position in Russia, Putin sees it as his mission to act to strengthen the Russian state. Gorbachev tried to liberalize the Soviet totalitarian system. Yeltsin held on to power and thus prevented a communist comeback. Putin is trying to maintain a liberal society and, particularly, a market economy, and at the same time to restore state power which tottered during the anticommunist revolution.

First, thanks to the generally successful antiterrorist operation in Chechnya, Putin has managed to avoid the collapse of the Russian Federation. Putin’s attack on the autocracy of the regional leaders has also contributed to the neutralization of centrifugal tendencies in Russia. Under Yeltsin, Russia was a de-facto confederation of independent regions, but it is now reverting to the federative structure outlined in the constitution.

What is happening is something that many western experts did not believe possible until recently. For the first time in the eight-and-a-half years since the Belovezh agreement, it can be said that there is no longer any threat of the collapse of the RSFSR; centripetal forces in the country are now stronger than centrifugal ones, and the era of the “parade of sovereignties” is over. Putin’s new administrative reforms and his legislative initiatives aimed at restraining regional separatism and voluntarism provide a foundation for restoring a single legal framework and a single economic space. For the first time the opportunity is there to carry out real market reforms and restore constitutional order.

Second, the difference between Putin’s Russia and Yeltsin’s is that in the last few months, thanks particularly to Putin’s victory in the first round of the presidential elections, Russia has emerged from the state of civil cold war which had flared up intermittently since the autumn of 1993, when tanks fired at the White House. No longer is there an “intransigent opposition.” It simply disintegrated of its own accord. No longer is there a division between society and power, a state of antagonism and hatred between the malcontents and the Kremlin. The bulk of society has now consolidated around Putin. For the first time in many years, people have had their faith in the state, in the authorities and in themselves reawakened. For the first time in many years the authorities have a social and political base, there is a moral and psychological basis for serious reforms and state business. The opportunity is there for instigating sensible reforms which the public can understand.

Third, the danger of a return to communism and the domination of Marxist- Leninist ideology has gone–completely and irreversibly. Communism is a spent force in Russia, both as an ideology and in practice. Equally, radical liberalism–which was a breeding ground for the preservation and creation of nostalgia for communism and communist illusions of equality–is also a spent force morally and politically. The bulk of society, even former supporters of the KPRF, are shifting towards positions of state and economic pragmatism, which is becoming the dominant ideology. The KPRF, as the successor to Leninist bolshevism, is losing both its revolutionary nature and its will to assume power, and is adapting to the realities of freedom of speech and private ownership.

In recent months Russia has witnessed a change in state ideology. The country’s new leaders have rejected Yeltsin’s aggressive anticommunism, and have adopted positions of pragmatism and positive historical continuity. Putin’s liberal patriotism is manifested, above all, in his respect for the achievements of all periods in our history–czarist, communist and postcommunist. Thus for the first time in the 20th century the ideological conditions have been created for national reconciliation and a stable civil peace. Putin’s Russia is unquestionably more stable and governable than Yeltsin’s.

Fourth, the fact that the new authorities are relying above all on the elected representative organs for support is very welcome. Under Putin the Duma has become not just more obedient, but also more effective and more important. While Yeltsin relied on the Federation Council in his confrontation with the oppositionist communist Duma before 1998, Putin is relying on the pro-government majority in the Duma in his attempts to curtail regional separatism. It is noteworthy that the draft decrees on the new procedure for forming the Federation Council provide for a significant increase in the political authority of local legislative organs and their leaders. In gaining the right to nominate two representatives to the upper house of parliament, regional Dumas will secure equal political weight with the local administration, particularly in circumstances when the regions are going to be run via a network of federal envoys, and when the powers of the governors are going to be cut back. The new political situation will not merely mean that elections to local legislative assemblies will become more important; it will also probably arouse interest in local government bodies.


On the whole it can be said that under Putin Russia has become consolidated, more stable, more governable and in this sense more predictable. Under Putin the threat of a return to a unitary state certainly exists, but there is no longer the threat of disintegration and chaos which was typical of Yeltsin’s Russia.

How will Putin use his power and his reinforced power hierarchy? This is the question currently exercising Russia’s political elite. It is clear that Putin will use the advantages of our autocratic constitution to deprive his political rivals of a chance for a comeback. The president’s actions against the Media-Most group must be seen in this context. It is clear that Putin, just like Yeltsin, will do all he can and more to hold onto the presidency for a second term. But what is not clear is how far Putin will go in strengthening his constitutional autocracy, where he will draw the line. Probably, because of his ambition, Putin will try to do what Yeltsin was unable to do, that is, to carry through economic reforms which will lead to an increase in wealth for the bulk of society. Putin is interested both in developing private business and in strengthening the position of the middle classes.

As a traditional Russian Westernizer, it should not be forgotten that Putin is a confirmed Germanophile; the new president will not erect a new iron curtain. I am certain that he has no interest in being hailed as a second Stalin. In contemporary Russia and in the contemporary world it is in principle no longer possible to recreate a totalitarian regime. Putin does not have the motivating ideology for this; he does not have his “crusaders.” It should be remembered that Russia is no longer a self-sufficient country; it constantly has to look over its shoulder at the West and relate its aspirations to the realities of democratic civilization. Stability will be maintained, but there will be no dictatorship.

Aleksandr Tsipko is senior associate at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for International Economic and Political Research and a columnist for Literaturnaya gazeta.