November 18th, 2007 14:25 EST
President Putin. Prime Minister Putin.
Democracy is the worst governing system, as far as politicians are concerned. Not only do they have to spend millions of dollars to be elected, pandering to every whim of their electorate; but also, tight restrictions make it impossible to endlessly continue their careers. Soon, Russia may set a precedent. Although President Vladimir Putin has pledged he will not violate the constitution by seeking the third term, he is far from retiring. After all, remaining in power is exactly what his people want. And what is democracy if not serving the majority's will?
It is no surprise that Mr. Putin finds it hard to step down. In an almost two-decade-long history of the Russian Federation, the nation has never been in better shape. During his two terms as president, he has managed to pull Russia out of the general malaise that spread countrywide after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He is the first Russian leader who has not only proved to know how to play national emotions, but also turned out to be a successful manager, able to secure a stable development in his vast empire.
The new country was born in pains. While foreign experts praised Moscow for exercising liberal reforms, the economic situation, for the majority of Russians, was either stagnate or became worse. State-owned factories that had employed millions during the Cold War were now being closed, one after another, because no one needed outdated cars, stoves and television sets. With the unfettered market economy, Russian stores were quickly filled with high-tech products imported directly from the West. The problem was that very few people could afford these gadgets that most Russians knew only from bootleg American movies. As foreign investors were striking the deals of their lives, it wasn't rare in the provinces to receive payment in bottles of vodka or buckets of coal. A huge, unbridgeable gap between the extremely rich and the desperately poor divided the society.
In the 1990s, the greatest fortunes were made not in the United States or Great Britain, but Russia, where one only needed to know who to bribe in order to win a lucrative contract. In a matter of several months, multi-billion dollar empires of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Roman Abramovich and Oleg Deripaska were born. The oldest of the three, Khodorkovsky, was only 35 when he earned his first billion dollars due to good connections in the Russian government. Soon the power veered from the presidential palace to oligarchs like Khodorkovsky. In a secret agreement between President Yeltsin– suffering from severe heart problems and alcoholism– and the businessmen, the two parties pledged to respect each other's interests as long as each side stuck to their turf.
But aging Yeltsin needed one more assurance before he could retire. The president was aware that during the eight years of his reign, enough evidence had been produced to indict him and his family for corruption and fraud. Only a trustworthy successor could guarantee him an untouchable status. So, when his advisers pointed at one Vladimir Putin, the former Cold War secret agent-turned-ambitious politician, it seemed to be the right choice. For a promise of a peaceful life at his dacha, Yeltsin appointed Putin– then the head of Federal Security Service (the successor of the notorious KGB)– as deputy prime minister, and, a week later, as prime minister after the incumbent Sergei Stepashin had left in disgrace. It was August of 1999.
By the end of the year, the new prime minister would work his way up from an obscure politician to the undisputed national leader. Putin's career accelerated considerably when he proved a strong commander-in-chief, waging a brutal war against Chechen rebels in the remote Caucasus region. Although the conflict could be traced back to the early 1990s, some suspected that the prime minister had inflamed the problem to build up his own career. The Russian-Chechen war was widely regarded as the litmus test for Russia's capability to sustain its imperial status in the world of unquestioned American dominance. The Russian society demanded success through blood and Putin was ready to satisfy their appetite. People loved the man who kept saying, “We'll follow terrorists everywhere. We will even kill them on the toilet.”
New Year's Eve is the most celebrated holiday in Russia. On that day, Father Frost– the secular version of Santa Claus– visits households and leaves gifts for the little ones. But on December 31, 1999, presents and fireworks were the last thing people on the streets were thinking about. The media had speculated for a long time that President Yeltsin had been unable to exercise his powers due to health problems, magnified by his alcoholism.
It was an open secret that while the president was on one of his numerous drinking binges, his daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, made all the decisions. When presidential aides informed national television producers that Boris Yeltsin wanted to reserve prime time for his address, Moscow was rife with rumors. Is the president going to resign? Will he resort to calling on the army as he did in 1993 to quell a parliamentary rebellion? Questions were flowing into the country.
Shortly before midnight, television channels stopped broadcasting New Year's Eve programs to connect with the Kremlin, where President Yeltsin was sitting behind his mahogany desk in his spacious room. In a very personal speech, he said that, due to his poor health, he was resigning from office.
“I want to beg forgiveness for your dreams that never come true. And also, I would like to beg forgiveness not to have justified your hopes,” he ended. The now former president stood up and staggered to the doors, followed by the cameras. Despite the medicine he had taken before the broadcast, he could hardly walk. At the doors he was joined by Vladimir Putin who, according to the Russian constitution, was now taking over the presidential prerogatives. The contrast between the two politicians could not be more stark: Yeltsin, a 68 year-old mumbling man who could barely stand on his feet; and, Putin, a 47 year-old robust technocrat with a black belt in judo and a convincing voice.
The new presidential election was moved up from late fall to early spring of 2000. With opposition candidates caught by surprise, Putin had no problems winning the majority of votes. Meanwhile, Boris Yeltsin had moved to his dacha in the Moscow suburbs and stayed away from politics. He kept his part of the deal.
Putin, on the other hand, had expurgated the Kremlin of Yeltsin loyalists, replacing them with his faithful comrades from Saint Petersburg where he had worked before moving to Moscow.
Yeltsin and his advisers who had picked Putin now asked themselves how they could have underrated this provincial clerk so much. As if to confirm their fears, the president made it clear the Kremlin's new policy would differ substantially from the one conducted by his predecessors. There would be no more blunders that epitomized the eight years of the Yeltsin Administration, which had made Russia the scoff of Europe. There would be no more displays of the influence of alcohol that would cost the country money and prestige, like one in 1995 when a supposedly drunk Yeltsin let Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic join NATO in the two years that followed. Finally, there would be no oligarchs ruling Russia from their private mansion. From now on, Russia would have the government it deserved.
It would require a lot of skill and strength to run a country as large as Russia. With a total area of almost 6.6 million square miles and a population slightly exceeding 143 million people, the Russian Federation stretches from the Baltic Sea to the eastern shores of Asia. “Russia needs a strong state power and must have it,” said Putin in one of his interviews shortly after he took the oath of office. “But I am not calling for totalitarianism,” he quickly added.
In May of 2000, days after being sworn in, Putin orchestrated a major change in the constitution. The presidential amendment turned a loose federation of 85 subjects (republics, provinces, territories, districts and federal cities) into a highly centralized entity of seven federal districts, governed by presidential nominees. A month later, another modification to the administrative bill was introduced: the president acquired the right to dismiss any federal representatives democratically elected and replace them with his own people. The move provoked a wave of criticism from the western media; the Russian newspapers either unconditionally supported Putin or did not raise the subject. The president responded to the foreign journalists in one of his rare interviews saying, “the strengthening of our statehood is, at times, deliberately interpreted as authoritarianism.”
Putin's political crusade continued. Like very few other politicians, he could sense the mood of his people and adapt his actions to their needs.
“Anyone who doesn't regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains,” announced Putin, playing on Russia's nostalgia for communism. Nevertheless, in December of 2000, the president restored the old national anthem that had been played during the Soviet Union times.
Written in 1944, the anthem became famous for its Wagnerian tone and communist message that it originally hoped to convey; now, it was to remind Russians that they were a proud nation with a great history and a better future. Only the lyrics had been changed slightly– instead of the references to the sickle and the hammer, the new version spoke of “The Fatherland’s tricolor symbol,” leading “Russia’s peoples to victory.”
The restoration of the old-new anthem was just a minor detail in a broader plan. Soon after assuming power in 2000, Putin began to attract widespread political support for his policies. While still in Saint Petersburg in the 1990s, he had seen how Boris Yeltsin had been struggling to win approval for his bills. Thus, the United Russia party was established in April, 2001, following a merger of two minor parties.
Needless to say, with Putin's blessing and free advertisement in the national media, the United Russia became the strongest political force in the country within only two years.
In the 2003 parliamentary election, the Putin-backed party received 37 percent of the vote, taking 305 seats out of 450 in the Russian parliament. From then, the president had the ability to control the entire political system, having enough votes to change the constitution at his heart's consent.
Putin's supremacy wouldn't be complete were it not for the overwhelming public support the president had accumulated throughout his career. Part of his enormous popularity derived from his leadership skills. After a decade of incompetent and ineffective rules of communist-turned-democratic apparatchiks, the new style that had come with Putin was a positive change. But, relying only on spin doctors and public relations campaigns could prove quite risky in a country where the electorate is prone to changing its mind very often.
The national media has always been used by the Kremlin. The tradition started in the Soviet Union and has been continued and upgraded long after its collapse in 1991. Foreign observers could not believe their eyes when the Russian television was bombarding its viewers with the pictures of rambunctious Boris Yeltsin dancing and making jokes during his 1996 presidential campaign; whereas, in truth, he was teetering on the edge of death.
In this respect, Putin only perfected the system by establishing semi-official control over all the major television channels and newspapers. “You basically know what's prohibited. It's clear to all of us which camp the owner belongs to, and what information is allowed...and of course I cannot touch the Kremlin,” admitted one Russian journalist in an interview given to the Committee to Protect Journalists in March of 2000.
Every editor who wanted his newspaper to retain the permission to publish knew that such topics as the war in Chechnya, democratic revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine and relations with the European Union should be presented only in the Kremlin's approved light. Those who refused to comply were silenced like Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in her Moscow apartment on October 7, 2006.
On that day, Putin celebrated his 54th birthday. Although an official investigation claimed the crime had an economic basis, no one had any doubts that the real reason was Politkovskaya's alarming reports on Russian mass killings in Chechnya.
Whatever was happening in Russia should affect its foreign policy. Vladimir Putin had inherited the country both unstable domestically and weakened by international disputes. The number one goal of the new administration was, therefore, to restore Russia to its former glory.
Accounting for more than 20 percent of the world's production of oil and natural gas, as well as being the sole supplier of those resources to Central and Eastern Europe, the Russian Federation was able to play a major role on the continent and worldwide.
Belarus, with its pathetic dictator, was already under Kremlin control. Georgia and Ukraine were steering westward after democratic revolutions had toppled Moscow-backed rulers; but, they were shattered by internal fights-- the former Soviet republics unable to oppose Russian dictate of gas and oil prices.
Heavily in debt, they had no other alternative but to listen to their powerful neighbor. Only the former Soviet satellites, which joined the European Union in 2004, managed not to succumb to the pressure, but Putin made sure his voice would be heard there, too.
Also. international situations seemed to favor Putin's plans. The conflict in Iraq, which had antagonized the United States with most of its European partners, presented Putin with a great occasion to bring Russia closer to Germany and France.
The scheme was working as long as Chancellor Schroeder and President Chirac were shuffling cards in the European Union. But when the pair was voted out and replaced by younger and more pro-American politicians, Putin could not count on the kind of treatment that he used to receive during the first years of his presidency.
As “the bad wolf,” as Putin once called the United States, had gotten more involved in Iraq, the Russian president pushed for the improvement of relations with Iran. Moscow had kept an eye on Tehran for a long time, courting the Islamic regime in exchange for lucrative oil contracts for Russian companies. As in the Cold War, Russia was now also competing with the USA in the Middle East. This time, however, ideology wasn’t at stake, but rather, the access to natural resources.
The more Putin angered Washington, the bigger support he received among his people. The nation longed for the times when the world feared Russia, and the president seemed to be taking the motherland back on the right track. Even the United States with all its wealth and power had to consult with Russia. To show that he meant business, Putin withdrew Russia from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and threatened to start a new arms race, should Washington press for building its anti-missile shield in Central Europe. The Russian bear could still bite.
Putin's approval ratings in the months before he steps down are still in the 80 percent range. Doubtfully such a great success could be achieved in any other country, even by a politician as cunning as the Russian president. Putin is a product of Russia's history which has always preferred strong, autocratic leaders to weak democrats. It is not a coincidence that the first and last truly democratic government, which Russia held, was that of Leon Kerensky's which lasted for only a short interstice between the abdication of the tsar and the snatching of power by the Bolsheviks in 1917.
Foreign media accuse Putin of killing democracy that seemed to take root in the 1990s. But what the West perceives as the golden age of the Russian Federation, was, for millions of ordinary Russians, a decade they would like to forget.
With Putin has come stabilization– both financial and political; for the first time in many years, people could go to bed without fearing the next day. In a country where revolutions can turn millionaires into beggars in a matter of one day, the president has guaranteed normality. Even arresting Khodorkovsky– one of the oligarchs favored by Yeltsin– severely lambasted by the western media but won the wide approval of the Russian people. Now everyone was equal.
A presidential election is scheduled for March of 2008. Despite enormous pressure from his own party and millions of Russians, Vladimir Putin has blocked any attempts to amend the constitution which now limits presidency to two consecutive terms. It doesn't mean, however, that Putin is ready to follow Yeltsin's steps. He has already announced that he is going to stand for election to parliament and becoming prime minister, should his party win. According to the Russian constitution, if the president is unable to perform his duties, the prime minister takes power.
On Sunday, October 7, 2007, thousands of people showed up on the most representative square of Moscow to celebrate the president's 55th birthday. The old marched with Putin's posters and banners as they did in praise of Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev years ago; the young had their leader's face on their t-shirts and baseball caps as if Putin were a pop idol. Near the square, another demonstration gathered– around one hundred people rounded the building where Anna Politkovskaya had been brutally murdered exactly one year before. The police quickly dispersed them. The official celebration went undisturbed.
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