Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 1

By Aleksandr Buzgalin

There was a special present for the people of Russia on December 31, 1999: President Boris Yeltsin finally announced his resignation, which analysts had been forecasting for so long. Few were taken by surprise: Most politicians and political scientists had predicted that the powers of acting president would be transferred to Putin in order to maximize his chances of winning before too much time goes by (and before he loses the image of the hammer of the Chechens and a tough guy capable of “roughing up bandits in the john”). The only thing there was any doubt about was whether he would agree to go himself, as a concession towards protecting the interests of the Kremlin “family.” But one way or another he’s gone.


People just want to forget about Yeltsin, to dismiss him as a bad dream or a delirium that overcame most Russians (as well as the overwhelming majority of the Western establishment). What can he actually be credited with? The triumph of democracy, human rights, freedom?

First, under Yeltsin all the basic democratic rights and freedoms–appointment by election, a real multiparty system, freedom of speech, let alone human rights–were less well developed than under Gorbachev.

Second, even those rights and freedoms that did exist were repeatedly violated: The constitution was trampled over by Yeltsin himself in the autumn of 1993; election results were repeatedly falsified; the media were either bought or were administratively subordinate–not even to the state, but to the president’s “team.” Human rights were frequently violated, and, on a large scale, especially one so fundamental as the right to life: When a few dozen people were beaten and injured in Tbilisi (Georgia) under Gorbachev, there were howls of condemnation right across the Soviet Union; when thousands of people were being killed in Chechnya, for the second time around, there was silence across the Russian Federation.

Third, the increased corruption and criminalization of society and the break-up of the state had the unprecedented effect of democratic values becoming discredited to such an extent that at the end of the Yeltsin regime, Russia was in a state of universal longing for a “firm hand” (which under Gorbachev looked like a specter that had gone forever).

Perhaps, then, the economic reforms were successful?

Possibly the only thing that has really changed for the better here is the fact that shortages are a thing of the past. But at what price? A fall in production of almost 50 percent, which has only just given way to hope for growth on the eve of the new century–and this is only forecast to be short-term growth which can be put down to favorable conditions. The standard of living fell by one-third. It is also common knowledge that the country underwent mass de-industrialization, while technology and scientific research are in a pitiful condition.

And then there is the break-up of the Soviet Union. For the West, this was a symbol of the fact that the “Evil Empire” had self-destructed. For the vast majority of citizens of the former USSR, this resulted not so much in the liberation of union republics from rule by Moscow, but rather in the destruction of technological, economic, cultural and even family ties which had existed for many years. What should have happened was the formation of a new, voluntary confederation based on the Soviet system; indeed this is where we were heading before Yeltsin came to power.

Yes, most people do not want a return to shortages and totalitarianism. But people wanted–and still want–to find a way out of the blind alley, without losing, at every turn, what has already been achieved. Yeltsin’s Russia managed to preserve the main defects of the past (from rampant bureaucracy to, more recently, an aggressive foreign policy and super-power ambitions) without building on the merits of the old system (good social security, stability, progress in science and high culture). The path which Yeltsin’s Russia followed took it out of one blind alley–which was a monstrous parody of socialism–and straight into another–a monstrous parody of capitalism (perhaps even feudalism). Ambitious people prepared to cause havoc for the sake of going down in history should be forgotten. But we should not forget about their tragic mistakes and crimes, because forgetting them is fraught with the danger that the worst aspects of the past may return.


At the start of 2000, as these lines are written, Putin’s victory in the early presidential elections would seem to be a foregone conclusion. There are indeed a number of good reasons for this. Let us remind ourselves of them, adding some thoughts about Putin the acting president to those impressions the reader already has of the roots of Putin’s strength as prime minister and the strength of Unity, the pro-government bloc.

First, the most important factor in Putin’s current popularity and his potential victory in the elections is that people are tired of “reforms,” changes and instability–hence the dream of a “firm hand” to protect them. Such social behavior is closely related to that of the serf who dreams of a strong lord in times of strife and trouble (in Russia the tendency for history to move backwards is very powerful–in economics, politics and ideology). Six months ago it appeared that Luzhkov and Primakov would be best placed to impose order, prior to this hopes were pinned on Lebed, and so on and so forth. Putin is just the latest figure in this chain, differing only perhaps in his tendency to be more dialectical, combined with flexibility (in relation to Yeltsin’s “family”) and the appearance of firmness (in relation to those who need roughing up in the john). For the time being, then, Putin is coping better than anyone else with the main task facing any candidate hoping for victory in the election campaign: Creating the impression that he is the “party of power.”

Second, much of the hierarchy of state power is already working for Putin, and will go on to work doubly hard for him. Alongside money and the informal power of the tycoons serving the family, this is the decisive force required for victory–as long as most of the hierarchy does not decide for some reason to defect to another candidate who numbers some equally rich and influential tycoons among his allies.

Third, the media is working for Putin and will continue to do so. Here I must note the wonderful image suggested by one television presenter. He said that every Russian citizen has a television set implanted in his head like a laboratory mouse, creating sensations of happiness (at the successes of the Russian army in Chechnya for example) and horror (at the stories of the evil deeds of Luzhkov) and so on.

Fourth, paradoxically enough, hatred of the Yeltsin regime is also “working” for Putin. Putin’s image (created not without his own input) is simultaneously anti-Yeltsin (he is young, sober, businesslike) and post-Yeltsin, representing as his heir the continuation of his best qualities (the image of official successor and continuer of the “reform program” implies that there will be no radical changes, and that he will be decisive as Yeltsin himself once was).

And, fifth, Putin embodies the dream of the common man, uniting what could not be united. In Putin, the common man can now support both the opposition, with its dreams of a strong state, and the authorities (by voting for the authorities, the common man insures himself against the hardships involved with change).

So what else is required? Just the little matter of being able to lead the country out of its system crisis. Or to be more precise–being able to help people get themselves out of the crisis. Can Putin do this?


When, on New Year’s Day, the new acting president decided to speak to the people for the first time in his new role, he said that he was planning to defend basic constitutional rights, spoke about the freedom of the press and about property rights, but said nothing about social rights. This “forgetfulness” is typical. Putin and the Kremlin family which backs him are capable of creating the illusion of order in the country, but as far as social achievements and the quality of life of most of the population are concerned, this leader is unlikely to achieve real, long-term results, just as he is unlikely to ensure real order (as opposed to illusory order, supported by the mutual tacit consent of the media and by a population eager for peace and quiet, even if it is a false peace and quiet).

The reasons for this are the same–everything is rotten in the country. Facilities and infrastructure are so old that they are on the point of collapse. Officialdom is corrupt and bound up with organized crime. Most of the population have become accustomed to living and working semi-illegally. Most of those in authority have been corrupted by colossal incomes derived from preying on the crisis. A situation like this can only be changed by a majority of the population, united by an organization which is truly powerful and which is dedicated to the rebirth of the country. But Putin does not have these capabilities. This is why the acting president’s aspirations to the role of a Russian Margaret Thatcher are overdone: The “iron lady” was the protegee of the “iron” alliance of state and capital. Here the dog-fights between the clans are far from over for purely objective reasons (the author has already written on the subject of Russia’s “Wild West capitalism”).

Apart from this, Putin is a hostage not only to the Kremlin family and the clans grouped around it. He is heavily dependent on the West–more so even than Yeltsin. Putin has inherited a country with massive outstanding debts, and Russia’s budget has been squeezed to a pitiable size: Should world oil prices fall, Putin will face a financial disaster.


“There is no other way.” This is what we have been hearing from the “reformers” for more than ten straight years now. This despite the fact that there always has been and can be “another way.” Yet within the “party of power” there is probably no alternative to Putin. And now voters will not support someone who cannot prove real strength by deed. This does not mean that there is in fact no alternative; it means that it is too early to draw any conclusions. The problem is not only Russia’s unpredictability as a Eurasian civilization–one gripped by crisis to boot. There are other factors.

The first is that Russia’s power structures and financial and industrial structures are not yet fully established. The pro-Luzhkov and pro-Zyuganov groups are biding their time. At the first serious failure of Putin’s team (and the situation in Chechnya, for example, is not nearly as rosy as the Russian press and television make out), the vassals will try to find themselves a different lord. There is no shortage of candidates.

The second factor is much more important. Russia is seeing the gradual formation of a real opposition outside the system. Slowly and tortuously, working people (particularly the “ordinary” intelligentsia and skilled workers) are beginning to sense–though as yet it is just an indistinct rumble–that none of those currently in power can solve the country’s problems. If he becomes president, the best Putin will be able to do is use the temporary growth stimulated by current conditions to create, for a short time, the semblance (let us stress again) of improvement, order and firm power. But this semblance is unlikely to last for long.

Aleksandr Buzgalin is a doctor of economics and a professor at Moscow State University. He is a leader of Russia’s Democratic Socialist Movement.