Putin in 2000 · 23 March 2000

This article appeared in the AFR on 23 March 2000.

The post-USSR chaos in Russia was bound to throw up a leader whose instinct was more authoritarian and nationalistic than Boris Yeltsin. This leader has now arrived. His name is Vladimir Putin and he will be elected president of Russia this Sunday.

Anatoly Sobchak, the late reformist mayor of Saint Petersburg with whom Putin worked after he left the KGB in 1990, once suggested that Putin might be Russia’s Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon’s career received a spectacular boost in 1795 when, as a less than senior general, he dispersed a Parisian mob with, in his words, a whiff of grapeshot. It killed about 100 people, earned him the gratitude of the Convention and command of the interior army.

Putin’s rise has been as rapid as Napoleon’s and has more than a little to do with his uncompromising militaristic attitude to Chechnya. Putin is not going to lose sleep over a few thousand civilian deaths in Chechnya if they help him achieve his aims.

So what are these aims? It might well be that he will become a sort of Napoleon who, after becoming first consul in 1799, reorganized French administration under strong central control and reformed the tax and legal systems. Certainly after the 1990s, Russians and the world will welcome a more focused and disciplined leader.

The 1990’s chaos resulted from both the nature of Yeltsin, who was essentially an instinctive revolutionary rather than a thoughtful administrator or builder, and the desire of society to escape the State-enforced order of the USSR. Yeltsin and society complemented each other in their goals in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

While Yeltsin wanted to destroy communism forever and build a democratic capitalist state, neither he nor his Russian or Western economic advisers had thought enough about what really makes a modern democratic capitalist country function. Yeltsin did not understand that not only are good laws needed, but they must be effectively and impartially administered; that, wrongly handled, privatization may as easily created thieves as capitalists; and that markets, unless transparent and free, are easily cornered.

The Putin discipline will not be without downside. Domestically, liberalism as generally understood in the West will take a back seat to notions of rebuilding the State and nationalism. In 1989, Boris Yeltsin, a member of the Supreme Soviet, was leading a group seeking amendments to the USSR Constitution at the Second Congress of People’s Deputies. The dissident Yeltsin wanted to uphold the principle of diversity and explained: Unity has already inflicted a great deal of damage on our country. Unity stood for thinking exactly the same way the supreme leader thought. It is time we got rid of this stereotype. It is in the clash of opinions that the best solution develops.

The wheel has now turned almost full circle. Before Yeltsin’s resignation on New Year’s Eve, and Putin’s appointment as acting President, the Kremlin thought it necessary to create a new political party to help it gain control of the Duma (the lower house of parliament) at the December 1999 elections. The party was named Unity. It describes itself as Putin’s party and is backing him for election as president.

In 1989 Unity was a dirty word, but now both society and Putin want it. In this sense, the desires of Putin and society complement each other in much the same way as did Yeltsin and society a decade earlier. Putin will be seeking to reconstruct some of what Yeltsin sought to destroy. Whereas Yeltsin sought, in his own way, to promote diversity within society and to free the Russian regional governments from the centre, Putin will be aiming for consolidation.

Yeltsin generally tolerated the communists, but Putin will actively work with them because of their nationalism. Yeltsin offered the regions elected governors, but Putin would find it hard to knock back any opportunity to appoint them from Moscow. In one sense, Putin the leader will be more like Gorbachev than Yeltsin. Gorbachev did not like disorder. He wanted to change the political system to make it more humane and the economy more efficient, but he did not want to pull it down. Indeed, Putin may be even less inclined than Gorbachev to promote liberal change. From this point of view, Russians are probably lucky that they are giving Putin a weakened State apparatus rather than the highly centralized one that Gorbachev inherited.

Western leaders such as Britain’s Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright meet Putin and are relieved to find that he can behave himself in a meeting (in this regard Putin is also more like Gorbachev than Yeltsin who was always too spontaneous for the liking of Western leaders) and seems to understand the points being made. Moreover, he has even allowed himself to make the fatuous suggestion that Russia could one day join NATO.

But the West should beware. Putin’s electoral victory will mainly be the result of an expectation that he will get things done and if that has echoes of the toughness he has shown in Chechnya, then so be it. Putin has neither the Yeltsin verve nor the capacity to inspire that could sustain his popularity through a period of inaction. Unless he brings results quickly, his popularity will fade rapidly. Once he has power in his own right he will grow to like it very much. There is enough nationalism in Russia to make it the obvious card to play. The stronger Russia becomes economically, the stronger (ironically) is likely to be its nationalism. Thereafter, Putin may be continually forced to play harder ball with the West.

Russia is not an inward-looking country. It is expansive, and the West will have to increasingly deal with this over Putin’s four-year term as he eyes the electorate for a possible second term. Putin may not be a conqueror like Napoleon, but he will miss no opportunity to boost Russian power and influence.