Year XLVI, 2004, Number 3, Page 140

  

 

Putin’s Russia
 
LUISA TRUMELLINI
 
 
The perception of what is happening in these years in Russia under the Putin government is often confused. Indeed it is not easy to interpret the elements of the politics of this country, both due to the lack of transparency in political decision-making mechanisms and in power relations, and due to the difficulty of interpreting the nature of the power of the current President when evaluated on the basis of the parameters of European liberal-democracy. Newspapers generally oscillate between praise for the strong economic growth of the country and preoccupation for a political stabilisation that seems to be based more on the reinforcement of Putin’s power than on the assertion of the rule of law. The most common attitude by European observers and politicians, as even the reactions to the tragic events of Beslan confirmed, remains that of a strong diffidence towards this country and its political leader who is continually reproved for his lack of respect for human rights and his poor inclination towards democracy; and the tendency is to avoid the problem of understanding what is really happening in Russia.
On closer inspection this is an attitude that reflects a mentality that is becoming increasingly widespread in our continent. As Kissinger wrote in an article also published on La Stampa last 4 July, in Europe, “in the absence of a European national interest yet to be defined, (the) non-state attitudes towards international relations are becoming very deeply rooted in European public opinion”. In the other areas of the world the opposite happens: “(for) the United States… (and for) countries like Russia, China, Japan and India… geopolitics is not something to be detested, but the basis of their analyses and their external actions. The national interest is still a unifying idea. The balance of power still influences their calculations, especially in their mutual relations.” The non-state attitude, on the other hand, prevents Europe from grasping the processes underway in international politics and from participating in the formation of a multipolarism from which it is currently marginalised. Incapable of overcoming its own division and therefore of forming itself into a state among other states, Europe is compelled to lull itself into the illusion that the cornerstones of politics recalled by Kissinger — those that the rest of the world refers to — are no longer valid and it finds itself cultivating a falsely moralistic and distorted perception of both international relations and of the transformations underway in the other areas of the world. While the other countries proceed along their own path, changing and evolving, Europe is caught up in the attempt to preserve its subdivision into sovereign states that are by now obsolete and emptied of any of their essential prerogatives, studying ever more complex forms of co-operation, through, to quote Kissinger again, “absolutely esoteric… constitutional arrangements”. In this way it hopes against hope that it can continue to count for something in the world thanks to its economic weight and it refuses to see both its own political weakness and its precariousness.
If on the other hand Europe were to really address the issue of having a true foreign policy, it should also address that of more carefully analysing what is happening in Russia, at least to understand whether the attempt to bring Russia back to being one of the protagonists of world politics has any hope of success, to consider whether Europe has an interest in this reinforcement and therefore to set up mutual relations on the basis of a conscious political project.
 
Russia today.
 
Any attempt to understand what is happening in Russia cannot ignore the distinctiveness of the history of this great country. Russia, compared to the rest of Europe, has always followed its own specific path in the construction of the state and in the pursuit of modernity. Independently of the perception that the country has had of itself over the last few centuries, a perception in which the “Occidentalist” and “Slavophile” currents coexisted more or less conflictually, is the fact that Russia underwent development over the centuries isolated from the European continent, without participating in its process of civilisation.[1] What we would like to highlight here, since we cannot enter into an analysis of the history of the country, is the particular backwardness of its society that, as opposed to what happened in Europe, was never able to develop and to give birth to a diverse civil society that could act as a flyweel for the modernisation of the country and as a political counterweight to the central power, so as to promote its transformation. Russia did not experience either liberal revolution, or democratic revolution, and not even the gradual assertion of the rule of law that characterised Europe. Given its geographical and social peculiarities — a great isolated and sparsely populated space, with a difficult climate that allowed only a poor level of agriculture, and therefore a population composed only of the mass of peasants and the aristocracy, without the middle classes being able to develop — it was only able to survive and head towards modernity thanks to an autocratic system of government, based first of all on the unconditional power of the monarch, and subsequently on the head of state. In this way Russia was not only able to remain united over the centuries but also to ward off all the attacks that came from a Europe that was technologically and militarily much stronger and that since the modern age had succeeded in conquering, in various ways, the whole world — except for, precisely, Russia. The autocratic system in Russia allowed the country to maximise its chances of defence and provided the only impulse towards modernity that was compatible with such a backward society with no internal pressures driving it forward: indeed all the reforms made in Russia were made possible by the very nature of its political system, in which there was no possibility of organised conflict, and they were reforms that, given the features of the country, could never have succeeded with a more complex and therefore fragile system. And the great attempt at transformation into a modern state did not happen as in the rest of Europe thanks to the evolution of society, that gave the political power the impulse, the instruments and the models with which to create the legislative and power framework to sustain such an evolution, but was based exclusively on the initiative of the state itself. This continued to hold true even when the most revolutionary European ideas began to circulate around Russia and to gain consensus among the intellectual élites, after the nobility became a social class truly independent from the power of the Tsar and after a more robust layer of citizens began to form. In reality the spark, albeit present, was never enough to trigger off an autonomous process, and the very reforms of the end of the Nineteenth and the beginning of the Twentieth Century were produced by the autocratic system. The Communist regime inserted itself perfectly into this peculiarity of Russian history, showing once again Russia’s ability to independently pursue a model of advanced development capable of supporting a long-term challenge with the West.
With the collapse of the USSR and the Communist regime in 1991 a new phase opened up in Russia in which reference to the Russian tradition was temporarily lost, and the search for a new way to close the gap that separates this country from more advanced ones began. But the level of development of Russian society remains that of a country which, as we said, experienced neither a liberal revolution, nor a democratic revolution, nor the formation of the rule of law, nor the birth of a rich and articulated civil society and a viable middle class. In Russia a true legal system only began to develop from 1864 and this explains both the weakness of this power of the state and the fact that the notion of civil rights is practically unknown. Democracy is largely seen as a fraud and surveys recently carried out reveal that only 22% of citizens approves of this form of government, while 53% is expressly opposed to it and 78% maintain that it is only a facade to mask the power of the rich and of the strongest clans. Likewise 53% of those interviewed believe that free elections are detrimental and only 15% view them positively. Called upon to choose between “freedom” and “order” 88% of those surveyed choose order, only 11% declare that they do not want to give up the freedom of speech, of the press or of movement in name of stability and as many as 29% instead believe they may as well give them up because they consider them worthless. Another survey confirms that 76% of Russians are favourable to restoring censorship of the mass media.[2]
Even private property, precisely because such a large part of the population practically possesses nothing, is considered to be at least a secondary right: only about a quarter of Russians, on the other hand, believes it to be an important right. And Russians mourn the Soviet Union (74%), believe their country should be a great power (78%) and do not feel European (only 12% do, against 56% who feel they are not).
In this light the approval of the citizens goes to anyone who is able to exercise a strong power, one could say a “reassuring” power, in terms of its authoritativeness and clout. Russians despise weakness (the reason why Gorbachev, despite the prestige he enjoyed abroad, saw his approval constantly falling at home because the erosion of power begun under him) and do not support those who advocate liberal-democratic political models (as shown by the very poor support for liberal political formations in Russia). It is inevitable, therefore, on the basis of social characteristics in Russia, that those who hold power in Russia on the one hand have a lot more of it compared to any other democratic leaders, and on the other that they thus enjoy a greater approval that is maintained as far as they are able to exercise this power with authority. In the case of Putin there is a further element: the chaos and disaster produced by the Yeltsin years have further increased public desire for stability and order, which was demanding a turn by the leadership, such as that which Putin seems to personify for the time being.
 
Russia after the collapse of the USSR.
 
The disintegration of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s had cast Russia into a difficult transition phase that should have led it to embrace the Western model based on a democratic political system and a market economy. Yeltsin, with the strong backing of the West both politically and, above all, economically (what had been missing for Gorbachev), should have been the leader capable of undertaking this task. The years of Yeltsin’s presidency on the other hand turned out to be disastrous for Russia that precipitated into deeper and deeper economic, political and social crisis. The data are well-known, and here one only has to recall a few significant elements: the economy collapsed in real terms by over 40%, the impoverishment of wide layers of the population led to a dramatic fall in life expectancy, the health of the nation underwent a huge decline with the return to out-and-out epidemics that had been conquered during the USSR era; and furthermore, just as another example, there broke out a flood of millions of emigrants, abandoned orphans and homeless people, coupled with a sharp decay in the education system.
All this happened in a situation of increasing anarchy and corruption that made it seem “normal” that a thin layer of oligarchs had been formed with full control of the government and that they used the State as private property, that corruption and violence were the only ways to accumulate wealth and that the vast majority of the population was condemned to survive in misery. And not only that: whilst the Russian state was being eroded at the centre, losing its ability to exercise even the most elementary functions of government, in the regions the governors by now carried on like little Tsars entirely indifferent to the instructions coming from the Kremlin or even in open conflict with it. The disintegration of Russia seemed to be a real possibility.
In Moscow the political situation was characterised by institutional chaos and therefore by paralysis. During the 1990s there was a continuous degeneration, to the point of having a powerless Parliament but one strongly hostile to the President, a fragmented and therefore weak party political system, in which political forces quickly joined up and then split off again, tied almost exclusively to the power interests of individuals or small groups, and to a juxtaposition of institutional figures that paralysed each other and led to chaos instead of governing the different sectors of policy of the country.
Not that the President lacked formal powers, quite the opposite. The constitutional reforms brought in by Yeltsin had made the President the lord and master of the country. But the problem was precisely the lack of any vision and plans by the President in office and his weakening, also physical, that had put him in the hands of the “family” (the group of oligarchs that had increasingly acquired the power and the wealth and that were headed by Yeltsin’ s daughter) in the to maintain power.
Russia thus found itself having to look for a new identity after the collapse of the USSR in the worst way. The old tensions between Occidentalists and Slavophiles were rekindled, also because they had become an element of the internal struggle for power, given that Western assistance was perhaps the main source of Yeltsin’ s power and that he wanted to impose on the country the economic line of uncritical adaptation to the prescriptions of the IMF and the international institutions, to disastrous effects. The continual loss of the country’s prestige even at the international level aggravated the population’s spirits and they increasingly demanded a government that was capable of restoring order and stability.
Putin was thus able to make use of this widespread state of mind in the country and to build on it the enormous approval that he almost immediately began to enjoy. His ascent to power, in a situation in which succession from Yeltsin was in the hands of the latter and of the “family” fearful of anyone who seemed too strong and thus able to truly manage power independently, shows his ability; his subsequent behaviour as President testifies to his independence and above all to his will to pick Russia up again and gradually restore her to the rank of global power. Chosen Yeltsin and by his entourage precisely for his modest profile, his apparent weakness and for his loyalty demonstrated — a feature that seemed to be a decisive trait of his personality[3] — Putin on the other hand knew how to skilfully remove this group from power without causing tensions in the country, showing his pragmatism in keeping with him the least compromised and more expert elements of the administrative machine,[4] so as to not to create dramatic gaps in continuity in the functioning of the apparatus.
He managed to consolidate his power in a way that has few precedents in Russian history over the past century (because of the of the solidity of the approval he enjoys, which exceeds 70%, and the lack of direct opponents many observers are felt compelled to compare him to Stalin) and he uses it in the difficult attempt to carry Russia towards a new renaissance. Previous tensions over the destiny of Russia, that tore the country apart under Yeltsin, now seem to have come together and been reabsorbed in Putin’s project. It is a project of a Russia that needs to overcome the economic and technological gap with the West in order to be able to play a role on the world stage, that therefore needs to integrate into the world market and have cooperative relations with the most developed countries, but that at the same time needs to maintain its autonomy both in the choice of internal affairs and in the field of foreign policy, where it must try to use its assets as a large country tremendously rich in energy resources that looks out onto both Asia and Europe.
 
The slow reconstruction of the Russian state.
 
To try to accomplish this plan Putin pursued since the beginning, and still continues to pursue, three fundamental objectives: the consolidation of the state and of the power of central government, the economic reforms needed to support the development of Russia, and a new foreign policy.
The problem of the consolidation of the state and therefore of the reorganisation of the power of the governors was perhaps the first priority for the new President. A few days after having taken office he promulgated the first decree that established the creation of seven federal regions (okrugi) in which the 89 territories of the Russian Federation were grouped, headed by representatives of the President (five out of seven were men from the Russian power apparatus — the so-called siloviki — and they were very close to Putin). The purpose was obviously to be able to control at least partly the activity of the regional leaders. Soon after this first decree there followed three new laws delivered by Putin to the Duma for approval and aimed at weakening the role of the governors (the obligation to respect the laws of the Russian Federation was being established, during this process) and of the Upper House, the Council of the Federation, that was thus reduced in practice to an advisory body.[5] In order to try and contain corruption at the local level, the 2001 budget (approved by the Duma in October 2000) went for a radical redistribution of the resources of the country of which 60% would go to the centre and only 40% to the regions, with the justification that funds destined for some of the regional authorities (health, education, social security) would be more efficiently managed by central government.
This, however, was only the beginning of Putin’s war against the local potentates (to whom Yeltsin had essentially given carte blanche in exchange for support to his presidency) and the attempt to defeat them was not always successful. Where it could the Kremlin replaced the local bosses (all utterly corrupt characters in the best of cases and generally even heading the criminal trafficking that was rife in the region) with trusted men. But the coercive force of the central power (assisted by a loyal judiciary) was not sufficient in all the regions in removing the leaders that created most problems. Sometimes the power of the clans they represented was stronger and prevented their removal. There were cases in which the Kremlin chose the path of compromise, leaving the governors in place but obtaining in exchange the respect of the laws of the Federation and a certain loyalty towards the President. Others in which the attempt to remove the leader succeeded but not that of replacing him with someone trustworthy, and in which therefore electoral victory went to the demoted governor’s trusted man, thus perpetuating the existing power relations.
The situation therefore remains complex, as is inevitable in a backward country like Russia, but the essential thing is that it seems there has been an inversion of the previous trend, on the basis of which Russia seemed to have begun to break up, and a net reaffirmation of the central power and of the unity of the state.
With this perspective we can also look at the problem of Chechnya. This region, in the chaos that had followed the break-up of the Soviet Union, had rapidly transformed itself into a sort of black hole, a no man’s land crossed by criminals and infested with smugglers. Therefore, beyond both Yeltsin’s option of war and his subsequent management of the problem, a management that was produced and precipitated more out of short-sighted calculations of power than out of a conscious strategy, there remains nevertheless the fact that Chechnya was — and still is — a cancer that risks spreading to the whole Caucasus region and that jeopardises the security and integrity of the whole of Russia. The danger arising from this unresolved conflict is enormous, and Putin, who has inherited it, is right to define it a challenge to the very future of the country; in highlighting the link with international terrorism he not only wants to warn the West of the inauspicious implications that not solving the issue is destined to have on the entire region and on the strengthening of Islamic terrorism, but he also wants to find the solidarity of the international community that seems totally incapable of the seriousness of the problem.
There are not many alternatives with which to try and resolve the conflict. The suggestion of granting independence to Chechnya, as had been done in 1996 with the results that are there for all to see, seems to be absolutely unproposable, and Western persistence in support of this
solution is quite astonishing: even after the Beslan massacre, whose impact is comparable to that of 11 September in America, the condemnation of the acts of terror has often been accompanied by equally hard critiques of the Russian President and invitations to “hold talks” with those who are demanding their “freedom”. Putin did well to answer that the Russians never dared to ask the Americans to hold talks with Bin Laden and to give them what he wanted, after the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. In the name of a mistaken principle of peoples’ self-determination, on the other hand, commentators continue to call for independence for this land that should be left free — even if perhaps those who support this claim do not want to face it — to be the theatre of conflict between political-criminal bands and the seed bed for the worst trafficking and the bloodiest feuds. It seems to be a given that behind these voices, American ones mainly, accompanied by those of the countries of Eastern Europe, still strongly anti-Russian, and by those of a large part of the intelligentsia of Western Europe, who in this case has embraced a cause which it is in absolutely no position to appraise the real significance of (and among these exponents we can also find representatives of the EU institutions), is the idea that Western interests would be better served if Russia disintegrated.
It seems more difficult to demonstrate that there are also such active interventions in the Caucasus region, but the fact remains that the isolation in which Russia is compelled to act on this front certainly does not help it.
On the other hand this is a vital problem for the country. Chechnya is an abyss that soaks up enormous resources, both in financial and human terms, without as yet achieving any positive result. Putin’s strategy of setting the region off towards normalisation with its own Constitution, a certain degree of autonomy, an agreement on a significant percentage of oil revenues and the support of an autochthonous leadership that provides such guarantees, seems to be shipwrecked between violence and attacks. Violence and attacks which also extend to the neighbouring regions: Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balskarskaya, Daghestan, in which local ethnic tensions are mixed with the problem of Chechnyan refugees and the extension of the network of trafficking and corruption. For the whole of Russian society the black hole of the atrocities that take place in the region is an extremely serious problem: not only the victims in the battles, but the brutality of both the army (who largely escapes the control of political power) and its enemies scars consciences and exports, in a situation that is already so fragile, a way of operating that contaminates the rest of the country.
Once again the most serious problem seems to be that of the weakness of state power and the resulting anarchy, of which the civilian population is the powerless victim: many are the voices raised to accuse the military leaders of the region of having an interest in perpetuating the conflict (the behaviour of the army often cannot be distinguished from that of the bands of local gangsters) and, on the other hand, the predominance of the clans and their criminal interests leads to the failure of every alternative strategy to war. In this vicious circle the only possibility seems to be the attempt to strengthen the control of the central power over the whole region. Corruption, as shown dramatically in Ossetia during the Beslan attack, is widespread at every level of local life, from the institutions, to the police, to the secret services themselves. And the central power, in order to try and root it out, can do no more than try and take control of the situation.
The measures adopted by Putin with the support of the Duma (in which — it is well to remember it — thanks to the fact that the President has a large majority, a motion was rejected that demanded the restoration of the death penalty) immediately after the attacks in Beslan, seek to intervene on this very point: taking away from the popular vote the election of the governors of 89 federal territories, that are to be designated by the central power and confirmed by the regional parliaments (and, at the same time, with the abolition of the majority quota in the Duma election), an attempt is made to take an instrument of control away from the local clans and to restore the possibility of intervention by the state government over the territory to enforce the respect of its laws and to restore order. These reforms (that in the words of the motion approved by the Duma aim towards “the consolidation of all civil institutions and of all power structures”) accompany antiterrorist measures that, from the point of view “of the reinforcement of the security of citizens and of national security”, help to establish greater control over the circulation of people throughout the national territory, over the entry of foreigners into the country, over financial transfers and over the work of the media.
This new wave of legislative measures has provoked a chorus of worried and indignant reactions throughout the West: even the US Administration, usually prudent in such cases, warned Russia about the risk of an undemocratic regression. There it is a lot of hypocrisy in this attitude, when Russian citizens are the first to demand a strong intervention by the state to try and resolve the problem of security and stability and when the alternative to the strengthening of central power is a descent into the chaos and anarchy that Russian society would pay dearly for. After 11 September, the USA, a model of democracy throughout the world, reacted with measures that violate fundamental principles of democratic cohabitation, from the Patriot Act, to Guantanamo, to Abu Grahib. And this in a country in which democratic consciousness is so strong as to allow a strong internal opposition to these attitudes even in such a dramatic moment. It will be difficult for Russia, that has never known democracy and that has few isolated dissenting voices within it, to confront this situation without in turn committing injustices and without the reinforcement of central power being accompanied by restrictions on individual freedom. But the point of view with which to appraise what is happening in that country cannot be its formal rate of democracy, as was done in the Yeltsin days; the perspective should be that of building a solid state whose point of reference is the aim of establishing truly democratic institutions and one that can evolve so as to spur its citizens to demand a real democracy and the conditions with which to achieve it.
 
The cutting back of the power of the oligarchs.
 
The other problem that Putin has had to confront in the consolidation of state power has been the reduction of the power of the oligarchs, which went hand in hand with the attempt to reform the party system in order to take the control of the Duma.
The war on the groups that, with the support of Yeltsin, had taken over the country’s resources and were setting its policy (also controlling the main media, which they owned) also started a few months after Putin’s appointment to the presidency, in the summer of 2000. There were not many observers who would put money on the President’s ability to avoid becoming another hostage of the power groups. Instead he managed to impose on many of them the respect of the laws in force and their exit from the political stage. The instruments used were both the fact of having simply shown that the climate had changed and that there was no longer the will to further support their manoeuvres, and of having pursued those who refused to adapt to the new rules by legal means. In particular, a series of investigations led to the two most powerful of them, Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, being deprived of most of their assets (including the television networks) and forced into exile.
The methods used by Putin in this case provoked the indignation of the majority of the press and Western observers, both due to the exploitative way in which the judiciary was used, and due to the attitude towards the media. But the situation in Russia is not easily comparable to that of a consolidated democracy. Above all one should remember that in this case the two networks involved simply passed from one monopoly to the other: now they are, for better or for worse, in the hands of the state, while before they were in private hands that were using them to their own ends. And if it is true that Putin has often silenced the media it is also true that they were almost never free voices, but rather those of the representatives of specific interests who were trying to oppose the policy of the government in order to maintain their acquired privileges. In a country with such a poorly developed political system and in which 76% of citizens are in favour of media control the problem one should ask is whether free and objective mass media can exist.
The battle currently underway against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the tycoon at the head of the oil giant Yukos, is the continuation of the first part of the war against the oligarchs. In 2000 Khodorkovsky had accepted the new rules and brought the management of his company back into line with the laws in force. But when in 2003 the Kremlin proposed an increase in taxes and a tightening of the legislation to prevent a very high percentage of the profits of the large companies from escaping the tax authorities, Khodorkovsky brought into play his enormous power in order to try to stop the reforms, to the point that a reaction became inevitable.[6] Once again the unscrupulous methods used and the uncertain fate of Yukos put the West into a state of alarm. But once again one should remember that what is underway in Russia is a difficult battle whose objective is the attempt to defeat the powers that are able to condition the public life of the country on the basis of the interests of a small minority, and it is a battle that can be fought using the instruments and the resources that the country possesses and that unfortunately are not those of a rich and articulated civil society, of a consolidated rule of law and of a solid democracy.
Putin acts in accordance with the traditional Russian line, in which a central power firmly imposes the passage to modernisation on the rest of the country — a tendency that, furthermore, is generally common to all middle-income countries.[7] The end does not seem to be the search for personal power, as outside commentators sometimes seem to think, but rather the introduction of reforms into the country as shown by the more or less successful attempts underway in the field of law, of the administration, of the army, of the welfare state, of health and education.[8] The difference with respect to the past is that Putin must also show that he has the approval of the citizens and not only the support (or the control) of the apparatus — which in any case remains essential. For now this happens, not so much we can say, due to the pressure exercised on the media or due to a lack of opposition, but rather due to the fact that he has fulfilled the profound needs of the citizens and has achieved enormous success in the past four years.
There remains, obviously, the problem of whether a system so strongly centred on the power (and ability) of an individual and on such a leadership-centred structure really can promote, as it proclaims, the birth of that open and modern society that is indispensable to make Russia into a state capable of sustaining the challenges of post-industrial development. Or if instead this system is destined to perpetuate a backwardness that will block the potential of the country. In reality this is the challenge currently facing the emerging powers in the world (from China to India), hung between the attempt to promote strong economic and social development and the need to not endanger the survival of the state giving free reign to the forces of disintegration that are present everywhere.[9]
In this light even the issue of the Russian party system and the role of the power men (the siloviki) in the apparatus becomes more comprehensible.
The latest elections of the Duma saw the triumph of the President’s party, United Russia, which in practice holds a majority, also counting on two further allies, the two nationalist parties who support the Kremlin, the Liberal-Democrats and the Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) group. The liberals of the Union of Right Forces (SPS) and of Yabloko have disappeared, not having been able to go beyond the minimum threshold of 5%, and the Communists are the only party left in opposition, and even their support is falling.
These results have roused many criticisms and a lot of preoccupation amongst Western observers, who have denounced the progressive emptying out of Russian democracy. In reality, from the democratic point of view, one cannot say that the situation was better in previous years. In the Russian presidential regime, established in 1993, the Duma neither expresses nor controls the executive, which is in the hands of the President (formally and effectively). The Lower Chamber has therefore had since the beginning only a power of veto. It is true that during the years of Yeltsin’s presidency a hostile majority acted so as to try and paralyse the actions of the Kremlin; but, apart from the continuous attempts at sabotage, the political forces in Parliament were never able to express any real alternative. Indeed, at that time the situation was further worsened by the fact that the party system was enormously fragmented (more than 180 political forces had been formed, many of which were so insignificantly small as to only increase the confusion).
The situation had begun to change with the December 1999 elections, those that preceded the election of Putin to the presidency. On that occasion Yeltsin’s entourage, particularly Berezovsky, had managed to create the “pro-Kremlin” Unity party that Putin had supported only later, also declaring his support however to the recently formed liberal group, the SPS, that brought together almost all the representatives of the liberal line, apart from Yavlinsky’s Yabloko. At the elections the Unity formation, that had risen from nothing in the space of a few months, had got 23% and the SPS 9%, thus constituting Putin’s base in the Duma. Another two formations were then added to these two forces, plus there was the “critical” support of Yabloko himself. The Communists had suffered a sharp decline (from 157 seats to 85) and the other major opposition party (Luzhkov and Primakov’s OVR) had soon begun to draw near to the Kremlin, far enough so that at the beginning of 2001 it had fused with the Unity group to give birth to Putin’s new party, United Russia. During Putin’s first mandate the Duma was thus already thoroughly “tamed”, so much so that it never created problems for the President and, rather, it sometimes became a convenient instrument for him.[10] And the whole thing had not been so much the fruit of a targeted operation Putin as an implication of the end of Yeltsin era.
As regards the law on parties, that Putin wanted to introduce, it sets out that in order for a political force to be recognised by the central electoral Commission it should have at least 10,000 members and have sections of at least 100 members in a minimum of 45 republics; registration and the relevant controls must be renewed every two years. In this way the 188 existing parties became about twenty. This was effectively a rationalisation, to facilitate better operation in the system.
In this framework, the temporary disappearance of the liberal parties from the Duma and the triumph of Putin are not so much a part of a precise plan as a quite inescapable logic in a system in which citizens believe authoritative power to be a priority. The liberals, who have not been a problem for the Kremlin over these years, but who instead as we shall see hold the key places in economic policy, more than being just the victims of power games have in reality paid for both the support received from Khodorkovsky in the last elections, and for their own inability to broaden their own base of support, something they have neglected in order to address only a narrow elite layer of the country.
Even the problem of the siloviki — the men of the Russian power structure, often linked to the security services, who hold many of the key places in the administration and politics of the country — is very likely to be less serious than it seems. First of all Putin’s entourage is composed of three groups, all of whom carry considerable weight in the management of the country (and who are at the same time all equally subordinate to the President): that of the Yeltsinites who, despite having changed “boss” in any case represent an element of continuity in the administration; that of the liberal technocrats, many of whom come from the Saint Petersburg period (like German Gref and Alexei Kudrin) but which also includes the liberals who had supported Yeltsin in the first phase (like Chubais, Gaidar, Nemtsov); and finally that of the siloviki itself, most of whom are friends again from the Saint Petersburg period or former KGB colleagues (like Sergei Ivanov, currently Minister of Defence, or Nikolai Patrushev, head of the FSB). If the latter have effectively grown vertiginously from the period of the USSR (under Gorbachev they made up 5% of the Politburo, while today they represent almost three quarters of the leadership of the country) it is also true that the trend actually started with Yeltsin[11] and is due above all to the fact that they are more competent, more disciplined and more reliable than the other bureaucrats. Once again, therefore, the deficiency of a system that offers few figures who are prepared for the management of the affairs of the state has led to a recourse to the group that is essentially the most prepared, all the more so to the extent to which the central power was intended to be strengthened and a class of loyal public officials to be created (and one capable of exercising a function of control over the power groups and the local and regional administrators).
It is necessary furthermore to add that the influence that they are able to exercise is in effect very much reduced by the fact that they are not a cohesive group with common interests (and therefore they do not become a lobby group that can hijack power), but on the other hand it is true that they actively contribute to supporting the power in office. They are therefore part of an effort towards the consolidation of state power with all the limitations of a system that is still backward.
 
Russia’s economic recovery.
 
Putin’s other big priority is the sector of the economy. As we have already said, Putin is aware of the fact that the power of a country today depends largely on economic development and on the growth of GDP, and that this result can only be pursued by integrating into the world market, and he also knows that Russia has still got a very long way to go along this road.
It is true that, after having hit the bottom with the crisis of 1998, the Russian economy since 2000 has recorded extremely positive results: the growth of GDP has been constant and sustained (on average, in the last five years, above 6-6.5%), fixed investments have grown (over 12% in 2003), there is a gradual increase in productivity and there was a return of foreign investment (even if still insufficient); government finances are under control and foreign currency reserves, in April 2004, amounted to 79 billion dollars. Russia no longer asks for loans from the international institutions and, indeed, has begun to repay its debts; in the international community it no longer presents itself as a country needy of outside support and dependent on others, but as an equal partner that pursues its own national interests and tries to create opportunities for its own business interests. All this is also reflected on the living conditions of the population: for example, the number of poor has been reduced by a third since 2000 and for the first time in 2003 there was a slowing down in the natural rate of decline of the population (that in the 1990s was about 900,000 people a year); the state by now regularly pays salaries and pensions and there are the first signs of the birth of a limited middle class, relatively well-off, that has not been formed only through illegal means or corruption.
But these positive results cannot allow us to forget the weakness and the contradictions that still put the Russian economic at risk: above all the excessive dependence on oil and the energy sector, but also the difficulty of allowing the birth of small and medium enterprises, difficulties that are largely due also, even if not exclusively, to the lack of infrastructure and the weight of a bureaucratic state apparatus that continues to be inefficient and corrupt particularly at the lower levels.
The greatest contribution made by the Putin government to promote the positive economic trend of these last few years has been, on the one hand, to give the country greater stability and order, creating a situation that would allow the government to collect taxes, at least partially, and to use funds with which to govern, thus bringing a little confidence back to society and encouraging it to try to build its own future. On the other hand it has done so by imprinting a clear political direction on the government of the country, choosing without ambiguity the line of integration into the world market whilst subordinating it to the achievement of internal social stability and therefore preserving a decisive role for the state. Whilst at the time of Yeltsin the uncritical acceptance of the prescriptions of the international institutions in exchange for the supply of loans did not translate into a consistent political line (and what is more it blended with revivals of Soviet-style statism, perhaps because of the compromises needed to have the budget or a law approved by a hostile and Communist-majority Duma or because of the pressure of some power group), with Putin the liberals hold all the key places in the economy and at the same time the government steers their choices seeking an independent way between statist planning and neo-liberalist reformism.
Putin has therefore given a role in the governance of the economy both to the liberals from the beginning of the Yeltsin period (from Chubais to Gaidar, to Nemtsov, to Illarionov himself who is his advisor for the economy and who was a Yeltsinite), and to his trusted men, again individuals of a liberal stamp, put in key places (like Alexei Kudrin, the Minister of Finance, or German Gref, the Minister for Trade and Economic Development). There have been cases in which this has meant, for the government, taking control again of the centres of power that had been consolidated outside of the institutions like private strongholds: this was the case, for example, of the Central Bank, for which, already in 2000, a presidential decree had established the end of its autonomy and its subordination to the central government, putting an end to the excessive power of Victor Gerashchenko (whose policies were turned against the integration of the country into the international market). In the spring of 2002 the latter had then been replaced by Sergei Ignatiev, a liberal loyal to Putin and close to Gaidar. Even in Gazprom, the State business that has a monopoly on natural gas, in April 2001, Putin had to replace the very powerful Rem Vyakhirev, at the head of the business since 1992, with a trusted man, Alexei Miller, a Saint Petersburg liberal: the control of Gazprom was and still is an indispensable cornerstone for the governance of the Russian economy, bearing in mind its enormous resources (one only needs to consider that natural gas is Russia’s primary source of exports — almost 30% of the total — and that Gazprom is the major contributor to the state coffers).
The presence of trusted men with proven abilities in key places of the economy is indispensable for Putin, who has ultimate responsibility for political decisions but who does not have specific skills in the economic sector and must therefore rely on the information and the indications of the people in charge of the different sectors. Clearly his poor direct knowledge of the matter sometimes makes it more difficult for him to intervene promptly in this sector in which it is easier for the mechanism of government founded on the ultimate authority of the President to slow down or to get stuck. Fortunately, the firm majority that Putin has in the Duma allows him, without much trouble, to have both budgets and bills of law for the modernisation of the system passed, laws that have always had even the approval of the liberal political forces (as regards the reforms see note 8).
But the action taken forward by Putin at the central government level clashes, as we have already said, with the backwardness of Russian society (one only needs to consider the facts relating to Small and Medium Enterprises: in Europe these make up about 70% of GDP whilst in Russia they just about reach 12%) and with the and corruption of the bureaucratic-administrative apparatus, which is both a cause and an effect of this. Added to the still insufficient inclination by the vast majority of citizens to take on the risks of private enterprise are both the lack of adequate incentives provided by local and regional powers (who use the budget surpluses not for create infrastructure and stimulate private initiative but to halt the problem of unemployment by subsidising state employment) and the bureaucratic difficulties and the snare of corruption and abuse of power into which anyone attempting this endeavour is destined to fall. Here the first obstacle is actually the licence needed to set up a private business. Despite the reforms demanded by Putin to try to simplify the procedures for requesting the licenses and to reduce the number of obligatory inspections (in order to try to stop the phenomenon of corruption at the lower levels of the administration), things improved very little: after an initial boost the reforms ran aground because they are not applied (also due to the lack of information by citizens) and the blackmailing of small entrepreneurs has been left practically unchanged. Indeed, if over these years the practice of krysha, that is to say the obligation for people who have their own business to obtain “protection” from the local gangs has decreased, the practice of public officials demanding bribes has on the other hand increased. The same legislation that regulates private property is full of gaps and the relevant bureaucratic practice is poor; thus, among the corruption of public officials and that of judges (all prepared to find in favour of the highest bidder, according to the opinion of many), among the dishonesty of lawyers, the possibility of intimidating with impunity and the inefficiency of offices appointed for the protection of public order, embezzlement is a rule. Even cases of companies set up, taken over by “business men” who have capital available and who want to acquire new companies with methods that use both the exploitation of the deficiencies of the system (for example in the registration of deeds, etc.) and gangster-style intimidation are frequent.[12]
Absolutely the most serious problem for the Russian economy remains however that of the imbalances created by an economy based mainly on energy resources. On the one hand the oil and gas guarantee enormous income for the state and over these years they have allowed the deficit to be balanced out and the country’s accounts to be put in order (these two resources represent 55% of income linked to exports, 20% of the total economy and 40% of tax income); Russia is the second largest oil exporter in the world after Saudi Arabia and 33% of the world’s gas resources are buried there, and in future these sectors are set to become even more important. Nevertheless the distortions that the pre-eminence of the energy sector makes on the economic and social system are enormous, as can be seen in all the petro-states (the oil rich states characterised by weak institutions, an inefficient public sector and an enormous concentration of power and wealth).[13] Only a very solid democracy and a very efficient public sector can guarantee an oil rich state not to have to suffer these imbalances: this explains why the United States and Norway did not end up like Nigeria and Venezuela.
Russia finds itself mid-way: the political struggle to release state power from the influence of the energy industry tycoons is still on (both in the oil sector, in which the industry is almost all private and in which the state does not have a special interest in privatising as much as being able to exploit its resources to benefit the country — as in the case of the arm wrestle with Yukos; and in the gas sector, in which the industry is instead state owned but nevertheless easily tends towards becoming a power independent of government and to strongly influence politics: this is the reason behind the necessity to entrust their management to managers loyal to the government, as we have already mentioned for Gazprom) and the efficiency of the public sector still remains all to be created. In these conditions Russia suffers from the classic diseases of this type of economy: the sector creates few jobs (only about 2 million workers out of 67 million in the labour force of the country are employed in this sector, i.e. less than 3%), requires and stimulates few investments, necessarily causes a strong concentration that, besides being able to cause the political damage already mentioned, is guaranteed to penalise small and medium enterprises and to contribute to preserving an easily corruptible local and regional administration. Furthermore, maintaining the country’s exports high tends to increase the value of the rouble, which can damage the other export-dependent sectors which are less competitive at the international level (such as agriculture, manufacturing industry, tourism). The very dependence of the majority of the state’s income from this sector is a strong factor of risk, both because it ties tax income up far too much with a factor that depends largely on an uncontrollable international market (one only needs to consider the effects that a drastic reduction in oil prices would have), and because it makes the state too dependent on a very limited tax base.
These therefore are the enormous economic challenges that face someone who wants to lead Russia into becoming a modern country with a solid market economy. It is difficult to say whether Putin will achieve this or whether the country will remain embroiled in its own contradictions. Surely the West, and Europe in particular — but we shall come back to this — would have every interest in supporting this process in order to avoid finding itself with a country of this size overcome by instability (when instead it could become a pole of responsibility in the equilibrium).
 
Russian foreign policy.
 
1. The field of foreign policy is the one in which Putin works with the greatest level of independence from his colleagues and in which his personal vision is most obvious. For many observers it is the sector in which Russian policy has changed most profoundly in these last four years. With Yeltsin the institutional chaos and the lack of a plan often created a superimposition of contradictory policies: the President tended to make the privileged axis with the United States the central point of his foreign policy, except for subsequently reacting in a disjointed manner before American choices that were particularly offensive to Russia (as happened during the expansion of NATO or in the Kosovo war) at the same time the other institutional bodies delegated to the management of the foreign policy of the country followed different lines, like Primakov for example, who, in his capacity as Foreign Affairs Minister, was working towards creating a network of particularly privileged relations with Asia, on the basis of a multipolar vision. Even in relations with the former States of the USSR Yeltsin’s policies lacked coherence: the normal tendency was to ignore them, and not to try and maintain relations so as to guarantee constant Russian hegemony in the region; again until he tried to intervene in the conflicts that were shaking these countries and to assert Russian pre-eminence in the region when Western interferences created excessive discontent in the political milieus of the country.
Under Putin’s presidency, on the other hand, the management of foreign policy was solidly brought back into the hands of the Head of State, who wanted to pursue a line that gave Russia greater weight internationally. In a world dominated by the United States, in which Russia has to suffer for its economic and social fragility, the only possibility of giving an international role to his country has been to try on the one hand to build closer ties with Europe, to continue to deepen those with Asia and to strengthen again relations with the countries of the CIS; and on the other to use all the opportunities offered by international events and to react to the negative situations trying to limit damage and take defeats without emphasising them with overambitious and useless attitudes.
2. Relations with the European Union are regulated through the Partnership and Co-operation Agreement (PCA), already entered into force in 1997, that, as an institutional framework, provides for two summits a year, a Co-operation Committee and, since 2003, also a Permanent Partnership Council, of a more political nature.[14] Since the beginning the purpose of the agreement was to favour trade and economic co-operation on the basis of the most favoured nation clause (MFN) and to create a framework for scientific and technological co-operation (energy, environment, transport, etc.) and in the justice and internal affairs sector, for the prevention of illegal activities, drug trafficking, money-laundering and organised crime (a sector particularly dear to Russia and that has been strengthened by an ad hoc protocol in June 2000). In this framework the EU must undertake to provide technical assistance to promote Russia’s transition to a market economy and to strengthen democracy and the rule of law. In May 2003, on the occasion of the Saint Petersburg summit, it was decided to strengthen mutual collaboration in order to create in the long term four common areas: an economic space, a space for freedom, security and justice, a space for cooperation in external security and a space for research and education, that includes cultural aspects.[15]
Trade relations between Russia and the EU are very strong (even before the entry of the ten new countries into the Union 48% of Russian trade was with the EU) and justify the privileged relationship that Russia seeks to establish with Europe, also considering the geographical contiguity of the two areas. It is obvious however in Putin’s strategy that this attempt to strengthen relations with Europe not only has economic but political ends at the same time: the axis with France and Germany during the American war in Iraq, the exquisitely political signing of the Kyoto protocol, and many other minor signals show how Russia’s attention towards the EU is also an attempt to compensate for American unipolarism as well as being instrumental to the integration into the wider world market. It is no coincidence that it was Europe that first acknowledged Russia’s status as a market economy (in May 2002), which meant greater new opportunities for Russia’s foreign trade, thus opening up the way to the same decision by the USA. In the last PCA summit in Brussels Russia negotiated a preparatory agreement with the EU for future entry into the WTO, an agreement that concerns the engagements that Russia will have to respect in the goods and services sector (upon successful entry) and numerous issues particularly linked to the energy sector. Russia, that has requested entry into the WTO since 1993, is carrying out similar negotiations with all the other members of the Organisation, but it is significant that it has reached the first agreement precisely with the EU, that apart from anything else is its main trade partner. Since entry into the WTO is an essential goal for Russia, made difficult at the same time by the need to set conditions that do not weaken the fragile economic and social fabric of the country, the result reached with the EU represents an enormous political success.
But alongside these results that were painstakingly reached there are difficulties with the Union, both due to the bureaucratic slowness of Brussels (that always treats relations with other countries from the point of view of its muddled decision-making and legislative system) and due to the Europeans’ moralistic and not very political attitude towards human rights issues, the respect of the rule of law and towards Chechnya — an attitude that continues to appear to Russia to be an incomprehensible as well as hypocritical interference in its internal affairs —, and due to the political untrustworthiness of Europe, that when it comes to the crunch always shows how it is not an autonomous interlocutor on the issues of international politics because it is too dependent on the United States. So, despite the relations established and the fact that in theory there is more convergence of interests with the EU, Russia often manages to establish a political partnership more easily with the USA, precisely due to their more realistic and concrete attitude.
This inability by the European Union to create a strong political relationship with Russia is due once again to its division and to the fact that it is an intergovernmental institution that cannot have a true policy and an incisive strategy in this area. It is of one of the many missed opportunities for Europe that, despite acknowledging that it has a vital interest in the development of a democratic and stable Russia (as recited by the EU Common Strategy on Russia, quoted in note 14), also because of the dependence of our continent on Russian energy sources, nevertheless does not manage to work towards it. Russia is therefore effectively left to its own devices in the pursuit of a difficult political stability, in an international framework dominated by a single hegemonic power.
3. Relations with Asia, and with China in particular, had been the greatest foreign policy success of the Yeltsin era. Primakov, the Foreign Affairs Minister at the time, as we have said, was the person responsible for this: for him drawing closer to China was an indispensable step to try and foster a multipolar equilibrium that would counterbalance American hegemony in the world, and to this end he had also tried to strengthen relations with Japan and with the whole of the Asia-Pacific area. Putin’s policy fitted well into this slot, and further deepened Russian involvement in regional organisations such as ASEAN, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and the Shangai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), enhanced trade relations with China (with which it signed a Friendship and Cooperation Treaty in 2001) and with India, particularly in arms sales and nuclear co-operation, and resumed relations with North Korea. Compared to Primakov’s “multipolar” vision, the Putin doctrine seems aimed, more than at trying to counterbalance American power, to strengthen tout- court the Russian position, above all stabilising relations with its neighbours (China in particular, that shares thousands of kilometres of frontier land that on the Russian side are increasingly less inhabited), trying to grasp the economic opportunities offered by a region undergoing great expansion and putting Russia forward as a mediator between the West (the United States) and a few particularly problematic countries (like North Korea). All this was taken forward, obviously, whilst paying special attention to the evolution of the different regional powers, especially China, that have an increasingly greater role in the global equilibrium.
This perspective of a reinforcement of the country must also consider relations with the former-members of the Soviet Union. The politics conducted by Yeltsin in this are had been particularly ineffective: the creation of the Community of Independent States (CIS) and the union with Byelorussia were more nominal than real agreements. In fact, the divergence of interests between Russia and the other former USSR countries in the field of security tended to become progressively wider, while from the economic point of view the relations had very much weakened (75-80% of total Russian trade in 1990 was with CIS countries, in 1995 this percentage had come down to 20%). There was absolutely no strategy that aimed at reasserting Russian influence on the area: Yeltsin seemed to only notice the problem when NATO organised joint exercises with some countries such as Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan or when the United States tried to get in on the exploitation of the Caspian Sea oil fields or in the gas pipeline building projects. Even military interventions in the areas most at risk were always done in an arbitrary fashion, without following a precise line, and tended to be counterproductive. In this climate the tendency of the different states of the CIS (favoured by American policies) was to try and create a network of international relations that excluded Russia.
Putin’s policy on the other hand was very active in reasserting Russian influence on the region, also through meetings and frequent visits and the sending of advisors in support of Moscow’s most loyal government men; the Russian military bases, still present in almost all the countries (the only exception being Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), were used as levers to try to counteract the American tendency to establish their own military presence in the area, even if on the occasion of the war in Afghanistan Putin had to make the best of the situation and accept that the USA would use the military airports and bases in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, permanently basing their own contingents there.[16] From an economic point of view Russia stipulated a preliminary agreement to create a single economic area in the CIS, aimed at strengthening mutual relations between the member countries to a great extent; the UES (the Russian state electricity company) bought electricity companies in Georgia and Armenia, and Gazprom has branches in a lot of CIS countries. Finally, the extremely strong dependence of these states on the Russian energy sources is a very effective weapon in the hands of the Kremlin, which uncoincidentally supplied Georgia and Ukraine practically on credit in exchange for “greater attention” by these countries to Russian interests in the field of foreign and security policy.
Chubais defined the policy that Russia needs to carry forward in this area with the formula of the construction of a “liberal empire”, which means the extension of its influence at the economic level. And it is effectively what Putin is trying to do, but with the clear awareness that this plan cannot be separated from the recovery of a certain degree of political control. The prospect for a reunification of the area is undoubtedly not the order of the day, but the problem for Moscow is that of avoiding the geographic isolation of the country and to enlarge its sphere of influence. In this light the prospect of an enlargement of the European Union to the former Soviet countries such as Ukraine, Moldavia or Byelorussia should be evaluated by Europeans with greater attention and caution and not simply pursued on the wave of a drive that, although the European institutions and many member states are unaware of it, derives from an American project and is hence supported by Great Britain. Europe should at least reflect again on the idea of giving itself an institutional structure composed of many circles corresponding to different levels of integration before proceeding blindly towards the inclusion of all neighbouring countries, which apart from anything else simply causes it to be diluted into a free trade area. And it should bring about within itself a federal political unit capable of drawing up the medium-long term vision of European interests, in which the relationship with Russia and the evolution of this country that Europe has an interest in supporting should be central.
4. Relations with the United States in these years of Putin’s presidency in Russia and of Bush in the USA have been much less close than those of the Yeltsin-Clinton period. In the 1990s America concentrated much of its attention on Moscow, fostering great hopes on its political evolution and intervening seriously in the management of its economy through the international financial institutions, even if it was still conditioned by the climate and the relations of the cold war years and therefore continued to simultaneously pursue policies that weakened Russia (for example the expansion of NATO), on the basis of the idea that for the United States the disintegration of the Russian Federation would have been an advantage in any case. Russia for its part, was not only deeply caught up in its chaotic transition phase, but also clung to the idea that it was a great power and that it had to establish an equal partnership with the USA. Inevitably relations between the two countries, since the second half of the 1990s, had cooled and these are conditions that Putin on the one hand and Bush on the other inherited.
The break with the past, for Putin, as we have said, was to become aware of the real power relations between the two states and on this basis to initiate a policy that tried to give an adequate international role back to Russia, through economic revival and the development of the country and abandoning both overambition and servilities. For the American administration, the change was undoubtedly smaller, but decisive on one point: the Bush administration stopped subordinating the relations between the two countries to the evolution of Russia’s domestic policy, limiting itself to becoming aware of the existing power, and continuing to pursue its interests in the manner believed to be most effective. A harder attitude therefore, but less intrusive and more based on Realpolitik.
Initially, with the start of the Bush presidency, the United States had clearly demonstrated their scant interest in Russia, by now considered to be no longer a threat for the USA, and had started to review their plans for assistance and their policies towards it. For Moscow the hardest blow had been America’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the ABM Treaty, a decision linked to the desire to start the national missile defence project (NMD) and seen by the Russians as a step towards dismantling the basis of Russia’s global role, that had always counted on its own nuclear arsenal against the United States. Putin, despite the extremely strong negative reaction by the political class, the military hierarchs and even public opinion in Russia, had had to accept the decision, against which he was powerless, trying to minimise the problem and choosing nonetheless to have a constructive role with the USA in the different international arenas. The objective, also in this case, as with all the other areas of the international framework already examined, was to demonstrate that Russia was a reliable and autonomous interlocutor, that knew how to assess its weight in the international equilibrium and that pursued its political and economic interests without the need for outside help.
11 September gave Putin the chance to insert himself more strongly in the stakes of world politics. His clear and timely support to America and to the international coalition for the war on terror (once again decided by winning over the fierce resistance of the military apparatus) allowed Russia to acquire a crucial international status, and the contribution made in terms of secret service collaboration and support for NATO brought the country much closer to the United States. The climate of collaboration promoted the American decision to maintain Clinton’s cooperation and assistance programs that at first Bush had seemed to want to terminate. Furthermore, even if this did not avoid, as we said, the disappointment of the suspension of the ABM Treaty, at least it led to the signing of the “Moscow Treaty”, aimed at dismantling of the strategic nuclear arsenals, that, despite all its limitations — especially from the Russian point of view — granted Moscow at least one “positive” result in the sphere of nuclear conflict with the USA and gave a little breathing space to Putin, who had been under attack for his politics that were believed to be too pro-American.
The points of friction between the two countries however are plentiful. NATO continues to be a thorn in the side of Russia that, despite the birth of the Russia-NATO Council — an essentially symbolic structure — finds itself having to live with this military alliance that was born to be against the Soviet Union, now stretched to the very boundaries of its direct sphere of influence, with a strong anti-Russian spirit still running through them today, especially for the new members, and controlled by the Americans. In trade terms there have been strong tensions (such as the steel war started by the Americans breaking the agreements on tariffs and the Russians retaliating) and the resistance by America to Russia’s requests for entry into the WTO has been a brake on the plans to consolidate the Russian economy (even when it came to the recognition of its status as a market economy country the USA waited for the European Union to be the first to sanction this recognition, and only deciding in 2003 to do so itself). Finally the disagreements over the war in Iraq emphasised once again the inevitable divergence of interest between the two States and confirmed, if there was still any need to do so, the asymmetry of the power relations: Russia could not stop the United States, despite the attempt to create an axis with France and Germany, and the reality of American predominance internationally was confirmed once again.
5. In this unipolar world scenario relations with the hegemonic power are difficult by definition and for Russia treading the complex path towards the assertion of a market economy and a rule of law is undoubtedly more difficult than it would be in a framework of multipolar power, necessarily more flexible. In the present situation the Americans have no interest in supporting Russia any more than necessary, when they are not indeed working towards its weakening; and, with on the one hand, the poor level of support received, and on the other, the rigidity of the international relations into which it must try and insert itself makes Moscow’s task more uncertain.
The European countries should have an objective interest in the consolidation of a stable and responsible Russia, but, as we have already said, their division prevents them from formulating an autonomous European viewpoint globally and makes any incisive strategy capable of identifying and developing common interests impossible. What the Union is currently doing amongst a thousand hesitations is only a tiny fraction of what it could, not only in economic but also and especially in political terms. And in general it is clear that a European Federation would by definition mean the start of a multipolar phase in international relations that would create a much more favourable framework for the development of the other regions of the world.
On account of the current scenario an evaluation of the possibility of Putin’s plan succeeding remains very difficult. The country has great resources, not only in material terms, but also in human and moral terms. And at the same time the task before it is enormous and its contradictions are extremely profound. The challenge is on and, in the interests of the Russian people and the world, we can only hope than it can be won.


[1] See the recent essay by Marshall T. Poe, The Russian Moment in World History, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2003.
[2] See Richard Pipes, “Flight from Freedom”, in Foreign Affairs, May-June 2004.
[3] When Anatoly Sobchak, the former mayor of Saint Petersburg whom Putin had been the deputy, was accused of abuse of power and of corruption Putin, then head of the FSB (the Federal Security Service that had replaced the KGB) covered up his escape to Paris. And in the same capacity Putin, in the spring of 1999, at a time when almost everyone had turned their back on Yeltsin who seemed by now to vacillate, defended him against the Attorney General Yuri Skuratov who was making investigations on the Kremlin and framing him with evidence that turned out to be partly made up. This information, and many of those that follow in this note, are taken from the book by Lilia Shevtsova, Putin’s Russia, Washington D.C., Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003.
[4] For example the Head of the President’s Administration (the so-called presidential apparat) is still Alexander Voloshin, who was one of the members of the Yeltsin “family” and both Sergei Yastrzhembsky and Sergei Prikhodko, both men of the previous President (Yastrzhembsky, in particular, was in turn a member of the closest entourage) remained in important places in the apparat. Their power is clearly more limited, their level of autonomy much lower and above all, since they have to act in a context in which the are by now firmly in the hands of Putin, their behaviour has adapted to the regime. Nevertheless Putin has preferred to leave them in office precisely in order to be able use their institutional memory and their experience in the administrative field.
[5] The first law gave the President the right to demand that the governors obey the laws of the Russian Federation and to punish them in the case of violation suspending them from office and replacing them with temporary leaders. The second gave the same power to the governors with respect to the local leaders and the third provided new criteria the formation of the Council of the Federation. These new criteria included the fact that the governors and the local chiefs could no longer be part of the Upper House — that from on would be formed by the regional representatives put forward by their respective authorities — and could no longer enjoy immunity for criminal and administrative offences.
[6] See “Taming the Robber Barons”, in The Economist, 22-28 May 2004.
[7] See Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman, “A Normal Country”, in Foreign Affairs, March-April 2004. The thesis of the two authors is that all the facts of Russia’s economic and social life are absolutely in line with those of any middle-income country. On the basis of this point of view they believe both the estimates of the relative impoverishment of Russia during the 1990s, and those of corruption and maladministration at the time Yeltsin (including the negative role of the oligarchs) to be excessive. They do not even agree with the preoccupations about Putin’s authoritarianism, the situation of the media, the politicisation of the judiciary or the weakness of Russian democracy. In their opinion these are only situations common to all countries with Russia’s degree of economic development and the relevant articulation of society, even if they do not deny that this does not provide any guarantee as to the future evolution of the country.
Although much of the data and evaluations that the two authors provide are convincing (even if perhaps there is an underestimation of the role played by the political leadership in the fall and subsequent rise of the Russian economy), it nevertheless seems difficult to deny that Russia, with its past as superpower, perceives itself differently from any other middle-income country (which includes just about everything, from Brazil and Mexico to Croatia, Poland or the Philippines) and that therefore it is guided by a project that aims above all to re-conquer its status as a great country in the world. And in this light it has a specific political tradition that sustains and directs it.
[8] In reality reforms in these sectors are still very behind. Already in the spring of 2001 Putin had put forward for the approval of the Duma a set of laws that provided for the reform of the legal system (introducing fundamental legal concepts into the criminal code of the country for the first time, such as the right to habeas corpus, trial by jury, and other guarantees to increase the protection of the rights of defendants, increasing among other things, the role of the Courts with respect to that of the public prosecutor), the reform of the land code (the private ownership of land was introduced for the first time since the Bolshevik revolution), of pensions, the insertion of changes into legislation on tax and the regulation of the business sector (to decrease the number of licenses needed to start a business and therefore to try to boost the growth of small and medium enterprises) and a new labour code, and had begun a profound reform of the army (that needed both a restructuring of the command system, that had completely broken during the Yeltsin era, and a certain professionalisation, that would make it more streamlined and more efficient, eliminating the excess weight it had inherited from the cold war). The following year there was a second wave of reforms, aimed above all at liberalising the economy, that touched areas such as banking (with the objective of rationalising the sector, in which at least a thousand banks were so small that they could not carry out any significant functions, while a few banks, which needed to be better regulated, carried out all the financial activities) and the regulation of the natural energy monopolies. The third, actually still under preparation, should be directed towards the social infrastructures (construction, health, education), the way in which they are managed and a study into the reform of the administration, that should be streamlined, made more efficient, better controlled and better paid to prevent it from continuing to be a centre of corruption and therefore an enormous brake on the development of the country; the latter is a real emergency, and is perhaps the sector on which the success of all the other reforms depends. We must add that the positive conditions of state finances should guarantee the necessary resources to implement the decisions and a first net cut in taxes to try and favour the growth of small and medium enterprises should be a boost to society. Until now however, as regards the first two sets of reforms, they have turned out to be difficult to apply, especially because of the inertia of Russian society and the backwardness and untrustworthiness of the bureaucratic apparatus. The journey in all these sectors has therefore only just begun and the chances of success are not completely secure.
[9] The preoccupation for the dependency of the state apparatus on only one individual is expressed by all the observers. Even those who, like Bobo Lo (Bobo Lo, Vladimir Putin and the Evolution of Russian Foreign Policy, London. The Institute of International Affairs, 2003), hold an extremely positive judgment on Putin’s ability and tend to play down the evaluation of the Russian system being leadership-centred, cannot fail to highlight this point. Bobo Lo believes that an analogy that allows one to better understand the workings of the command and control line in Russia is that of the structure of a terrorist organisation in which the leader exercises a strategic control and coordination function for the various cells (in this case the institutional players) who carry out the tasks assigned to them by the leader without any intermediaries. It is Putin who holds the line of all the activities of the different institutions, substantially without intermediate figures acting belts. He therefore counts on the abilities of the heads of the different sectors (this is why he tried to put not only trusted people but also those with the requisite skills in the places), but his is the task of both providing the guidelines and directing the choices and of coordinating the entire apparatus. It is a task that requires great ability reserves of energy and that sometimes stops working precisely because of the difficulty for only one man to control the whole system. Furthermore the apparatus itself needs to be managed and often Putin is hampered by the need to maintain the balance between the different components of his entourage (the struggles between the liberal wing of the Saint Petersburg group and the ““party” of the siloviki, or the tensions with the Yeltsinites often force him to spend time and energy on this front too). All this increases the doubt over the future of the Russian system, especially its chance of obtaining capable leaders and of evolving towards a more efficient structure and one that is less tied to the qualities of an individual political leader.
[10] The current definition of the present role of the Duma is that of “loyal opposition” to the service of the President (see Bobo Lo, op. cit., pp. 40 and subs.). Frequent are the cases where the Duma (through its more authoritative representatives) expresses the more uncomfortable positions in its relations with the international institutions or with the other countries allowing Putin to get out of personally having to make the most controversial arguments or show his role as “mediator” to the outside world compared to the “more radical” tendencies present in the country.
[11] See the tables shown by The Economist, 22-28 May 2004, in “Power to the People”.
[12] See “Watch Your Back”, in The Economist, 22-28 May 2004.
[13] See Moises Nairn, “Russia’s Oil Future”, in Foreign Policy, January-February 2004.
[14] The strategy of the Union towards Russia is set in the “EU Common Strategy on Russia” passed by the Council in June 1999, the first in the series of Strategies introduced by the Amsterdam Treaty in response to the recognition of the fact that greater coherence was needed between the policies of the Union and the member states toward their most important partners. The Union believes it has a clear strategic objective of “a stable, open and pluralistic democracy in Russia, governed by the rule of law and underpinning a prosperous market economy benefiting alike all the people of Russia and Union; and in maintaining European stability, promoting global security and responding to the common challenges of the continent through intensified co-operation with Russia”.
[15] The agreement for the creation of these four spaces should have been signed during the summit set for 11 November 2004, which at the last moment was postponed to a date to be settled because of the difficulties that arose during the negotiations, especially in the field of human and civil rights. Many states in the Union in fact would like them to be inserted as binding engagements together with the agreements on the other common spaces whilst Russia would rather they be dealt under separate negotiations.
[16] The American presence in central Asia was accepted by Putin against the opinion of his advisors and of the high military commands. For Putin it was a choice forced upon him from the time he had decided to use the climate created after the attacks of 11 September to insert Russia fully into the gameplay of the “western” alliance, seeking a role with the United States as ally-interlocutor. A refusal would most likely have been destined to fail, since the three countries in question were favourable to it and it would only have compromised the overall strategy.

 

 

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