By Aleksandr Tsipko
Russia’s political analysts have one notable weakness. On the whole they are incapable of self-criticism, unable to acknowledge their mistakes and sometimes glaring miscalculations. In order to appear sound and convincing in their own eyes, they are forever adjusting and manipulating actual trends in public opinion to square with their own belated and often forced insights. For example, our political commentators are wont to link the collapse of the population’s liberal hopes with the default of August 1998, when in fact Gaidar’s shock therapy of 1992 exploded many romantic perestroika-era illusions about both the West and market reforms.
And the longer our experts manipulate and tinker with the facts they don’t like, the greater the time lapse between the actual tectonic shift in public opinion and our political scientists’ official interpretation of it.
As early as 1990, there were people who said that there was no future for our antistate, antipatriotic democracy, which associated itself with the idea of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the destruction of a country which had been formed over three centuries; our defeatist and unpatriotic democracy was doomed. People were saying then that the best way forward for our new democracy would be to take on board traditional Russian liberal patriotism, and to link ideas of freedom and market reform with patriotic values from the outset. Yet, for some reason, current received wisdom has it that ideas of enlightened and liberal patriotism have only now reached maturity–now that Putin’s team has taken them on board.
Our political scientists tend to associate the shift in public opinion away from the personality and towards the country and the state with the late Yeltsin period, after he eventually decided to “look after Russia.”
But it was during the crisis of 1992-93, not in 1999, that the whole of society focused itself on statist values, national honor, authority and order. And if it had not been for the stubbornness and self-confidence of the reformers, who already had no desire to retreat, the bloodshed of 1993 would not have happened and the autocratic regime of Boris Yeltsin would not have subsequently dug itself in.
Instead of a real history of postcommunist Russia, with its genuine conflicts and insights, a mythologized, apologist picture is being created of the political process of recent years. In this way, the idea is being planted in the public consciousness that there is no alternative to our post-communist Russia, that the changes in the public mood which led to the arrival of Putin’s team–that is, people from the “power” structures–are only a recent phenomenon. At the same time, the idea is being planted that the mission to save Russian statehood and restore authority could not have arisen earlier–not until both liberal romanticism and the belief that “the West will help us” burnt themselves out (that is, until Chubais became a liberal patriot). But in fact there was every chance that our democracy–like those in other Eastern European countries–could have combined liberal values with the task of restoring and strengthening national statehood from the outset.
The trouble with this forgetfulness on the part of our political scientists–be it conscious or unconscious–is not just that it robs us of the opportunity to assess our past, and distinguish unavoidable mistakes from criminal negligence. The trouble is also that without a realistic and accurate picture of what we have lived through in the last decade, we cannot understand what is happening to us now; we cannot understand the meaning and substance of the changes brought about by the rise of the military to power in Russia.
This has direct bearing on the problem of the rise of the military to power in Russia. Official political analysis has it that current changes among the political elite–that is, the capture of key positions by the military–are Putin’s doing, the president having supposedly decided to return to authoritarian times. In much of the liberal media it is claimed that “Yeltsin was a democrat,” whereas Putin, on the contrary, is relying on the authority of soldiers in civilian suits.
But this is all untrue. The whole problem is that the political regime which was established after December 1991–that is, after the break-up of the Soviet Union–relied from the outset on the strength and loyalty of the power structures. This went unnoticed both in the West and here in Russia. This is the only reason why many people are now surprised that real power and key positions on the political scene are in the hands of soldiers.
The humor of the current situation lies in the fact that those who are making most noise about the danger and risk attached to the rise to power of the military and, particularly, ex-KGB men, are the very same politicians and journalists who called on KGB generals Korzhakov and Barsukov to lead the attack on the White House on October 4, 1993. The question must be asked: “Could Yeltsin’s unpopular regime have survived its last years without the support of the power structures?” The answer, of course, is no. It follows from this that the buttress of the Yeltsin regime, at least from 1993 onwards, was not the Constitution but the army.
The influence of the siloviki [people from the “power structures”] in the country is the other side of our elective autocracy.
If we recall all the actual “heroes” and “architects” of Yeltsin’s autocracy, there are no grounds for indignation at the fact that the siloviki are supposedly itching to get their hands on power. Yes, elated by the political success of KGB colonel Putin, the siloviki are showing more taste for public politics. In the list of candidates for governor in the elections taking place in thirty Russian regions, journalists have identified dozens of people from the power structures. In November, the commander of the Baltic Fleet, Admiral Yegorov, won an easy victory over his opponent in the gubernatorial election in Kaliningrad. It transpires that the inhabitants of this westernmost part of Russia attach great hopes to his election as governor.
The transition from a parliamentary, democratic path of development to an autocratic presidential one took place not when Yeltsin handed power to Putin, but in September 1993, in other words when Yeltsin revoked the constitution and issued his decree dissolving the Russian Congress of People’s Deputies. But the whole problem is that, as a rule, it is those intellectuals now accusing Putin of disowning the democratic past who initiated and masterminded the stifling of our parliamentary republic. What is only now becoming evident and public has always in fact been the basis of Yeltsin’s power. From 1991 onwards, the military have represented the main force in postcommunist Russia.
I cannot comprehend why the desire of Chechen war hero General Shamanov to become a governor is seen to presage the downfall of Russian democracy, while the desire of Afghan war hero Colonel Rutskoi to become vice president of Russia was a manifestation of democratic freedoms.
I don’t know how much of all this wailing about the rise of the military and the increasing popularity of men in uniform is cunning and how much is naivety. In all our postcommunist history, has there been even one serious event in which the siloviki did not play a decisive role? It could not have been otherwise, for at the fateful moments–during the 1991 coup, the Belovezh conspiracy, and the armed standoff between Yeltsin and the Congress of People’s Deputies–the people have been silent. Under these circumstances, the result of the struggle always depended on which side the generals came down on.
From the outset, our democracy was begotten of militarism, linked to the so-called “third force;” it owes its rise to power both to the military and to the traditional Russian love of a man in uniform.
On two occasions, in 1990 and 1991, “democratic” Russia played the “Rutskoi the Afghan war hero” card, both in the struggle for the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, and in the battle for Yeltsin’s presidency. The population’s faith in a general–on this occasion the authoritative General Lebed–was used again in 1996, this time in the presidential elections. If Lebed had not called upon his supporters to vote for the unpopular Yeltsin, then they would probably have had to have resorted once again to unconstitutional methods to hold onto power, as happened in October 1993. The spontaneous statism of the siloviki, about which so much is now being written, and which is being linked to Putin, has been a factor of the ideological battle throughout the history of postcommunist Russia. What is only now becoming evident and public has in fact always been the basis of Yeltsin’s power since August 1991. The force that we have referred to as the “third force” since Lebed’s arrival in the Congress of Russian Communities in 1995 has in fact always been the first force; in resolving serious problems, it has always pushed both democrats and communists out of the way. Yeltsin would never have been able to make Putin his successor if his regime had not relied primarily on the siloviki. Everything else was purely a matter of election technique.
It would be appropriate here to discuss events which are usually glossed over in specialist research.
Yeltsin and his team came through in August 1991 primarily because Alpha, the KGB elite unit, did not want to arrest Gorbachev’s main rival, and because generals Shaposhnikov, Kobets, Deineka and Grachev decided to back the Supreme Soviet. Much as he might have wanted to, Gorbachev could not arrest Yeltsin and the other participants of the Belovezh coup in December 1991, because Shaposhnikov once again aligned himself with the president of the RSFSR.
The military nature of the regime was not so noticeable before, because Yeltsin skillfully camouflaged it, generally only permitting democrats and reformers to perform in public, and also allowing them to control the media. Even when it seemed that the democrats and their public policies genuinely had the upper hand–when, for example, Chubais managed to remove Korzhakov from the Kremlin team in June 1996–the military nature of the regime did not change. It was only after the default of August 1998 that Yeltsin stopped playing complex high-risk games designed to secure western support, and began appointing siloviki, one after the other, to key posts, starting with Bordyuzha, then Stepashin, and then Putin. It has now become clear, after Yeltsin’s “presidential marathon,” that he never even entertained the thought of transferring power to anyone but the siloviki. It seemed to him that no one else could hold on to power in Russia: Not Chernomyrdin, not even Primakov.
All that has happened under Putin is the personification of the military nature of the regime. In the final analysis, this was the logical conclusion not just of the nature of our elective autocracy, which relies on the siloviki, but also of the drift of public opinion. Effectively since 1992, following disillusionment with the results of shock therapy and discontent at the foreign policy of Kozyrev (dubbed “Mr. Yes”), there was a rapidly growing desire both for the restoration of national honor and for authority, in other words the sentiments which brought Putin to power. Disillusionment with the liberal reforms and the democrats, it is now clear, did not so much expand the social base of the communists as accentuate the need to bring the siloviki into politics.
In the final analysis, paradoxical as it may seem, this turn of events also conformed to democratic norms. In a democracy, it is the most popular force which comes to power–the one the majority of the population attaches its hopes to. Thus in selecting Putin–an ex-KGB man–as his successor, Yeltsin was acting like a democrat, in the sense that he was satisfying public demand in our transition period. I would even venture to assert that the current political changes–the determination of the siloviki not only to wield power but also to become the object of public attention–do not render our country any less democratic than it was before. In a sense, when Putin’s team came to power, the current political regime became even more democratic, because it now has a broader social base. In any event, a return to communism–a left-wing comeback, which was the subject of so much debate in the mid-1990s–is no longer possible.
I do not think that the reformers who dominated public politics gave a silent Russia more rights and personal freedom than the generals now coming to power. That freedom was indeed a great achievement against the background of communist totalitarianism, but it was freedom primarily for those who owned and controlled the media. It should not be forgotten that until recently–until Putin came to power–our left-wing opposition, which is still supported by one third of the population, did not have direct access to television. Zyuganov and Anpilov were only allowed on television when election rules allowed it. By its very nature, the regime which grew out of the little civil war of October 1993 could not be democratic in the real sense of the word. When the media belong to politicians who are not generally popular, they are bound to be aggressive and intolerant of other viewpoints.
Naturally, the change in Russia’s political elite, and the replacement of those who emerged from the democratic revolution by military men, will have far-reaching consequences. This change in the political elite is already manifesting itself in Russia’s foreign policy.
The Kremlin’s rejection of the Gore-Chernomyrdin deal, and of its commitment not to supply conventional weapons to Iran is a turning point not just in Russia’s foreign policy, but also in domestic policy. Unlike Yeltsin’s government, Putin’s government is no longer worried about the reaction from the “Washington party cell,” for the simple reason that it is no longer concerned about the opinion of its friends in Russia.
To be fair, it should be acknowledged that Yeltsin was directly involved in this “anti-Western” counterrevolution. When he and, particularly, Tatyana Dyachenko realized in January 1998 that the “NTV Party” had betrayed them and that the West only provides “protection” for our liberal democrats, not the Family, they started banking on the siloviki, those who “do not need the Turkish coast.”
The second Chechen war helped finally to refocus public opinion on national interests and restore the prestige of the military and the generals–those who are forging Russia’s long-awaited victory (although during this war power in Russia has transferred not to the army but to Putin’s KGB friends).
This change of elite–the people who formulate Kremlin policy–became possible also due to a split between the “national privatizers” and the “international privatizers”, thanks to the fact that Berezovsky’s group did not want total transparency in the Russian economy, hoping that under Putin it could to sell to itself any remaining state property as cheaply as possible.
The gradual exclusion from major-league politics of those who emerged from our last liberal revolution by people from the power structures and the military is not yet complete. As yet the power of the Security Council and the FSB have only been augmented by the power of five governor-generals imposing order in the depths of the Russian provinces.
But there are grounds for supposing that the change in the political elite that we are witnessing in Russia will not only lead to a change in direction in foreign policy, but also in domestic policy, and above all in the economy. The rehabilitation of state interests in foreign policy presupposes a tougher and direct defense of state interests in the economy. Whereas in the era of Kozyrev and Gaidar anything that consolidated the growth of private ownership and the market was useful, now anything that provides immediate budget revenue and boosts the economic resources available for strengthening the power hierarchy will be useful.
I would venture to assert that Putin is establishing control over the media, particularly television, in order to insure himself not against public discontent with the new liberal revolution, but on the contrary against the discontent of the new owners after the almost inevitable renationalization.
Naturally, Putin will continue his policy of checks and balances between the marketeers and advocates of dirigisme. But it is obvious that the final rise to power in Russia of the siloviki will reinforce the position of those who support a return to state intervention in the economy. It is well known that those most dissatisfied with privatization are the military, who have to support themselves on a tight state budget. Like the vast majority of the population, they think that the natural monopolies should not have been privatized, and that natural resources should have remained in the possession of the state. The question of the renationalization of the natural rent is becoming an increasingly relevant issue as the current short-term sources of economic growth are running out. The longer Russia is obliged to pay off its debts, and the greater the cost of our independent foreign policy, the greater will be the temptation to take direct state control of everything that brings a profit.
With key positions secured in politics and the media, key positions in the economy will now also be secured. In the near future we will witness many more significant events related to the military’s rise to power.
Aleksandr Tsipko is senior associate at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for International Economic and Political Research and a columnist for Literaturnaya gazeta.