Russia’s third presidential election, on March 26, should have been historic–the first democratic transfer of Kremlin power via the ballot box. Instead it was, as some Moscow analysts argue, a “coup d’état” engineered to protect the oligarchs and corrupt officials left behind by Boris Yeltsin when he resigned. Insofar as returns can be trusted, the voters did not deliver a mandate for any economic program, in a country that remains mired in the worst depression of modern history. Indeed, Vladimir Putin flatly refused to reveal his domestic policies prior to the election.
Putin’s success was attributable not just to popular support for his brutal war in Chechnya but also to the state-run media’s portrayal of him as the anti-Yeltsin–young, sober, physically robust and in charge. Putin’s campaign slogan, “Democracy is the dictatorship of law,” adroitly captured Russians’ yearning for order, their disenchantment with democracy and freedom, which they associate with economic pain, turmoil and corruption.
As acting President and as a candidate, Putin tried to be all things to all people–a Praetorian to the oligarchs who created him; a Pinochet to the entrepreneurial class that wants markets and private property imposed on the country; a kind of Franklin Roosevelt to the impoverished millions who demand social justice in the form of restored entitlements and improved standards of living; and a patron to the military and security forces, whose budgets he’s promised to increase.
Who is the real Putin? He is a President who now must make choices that will define his leadership. A key test will be how he treats the tycoons who control most of Russia’s richest and most profitable assets, especially its natural resources. Will he continue Yeltsin’s protection of the oligarchy? Or will he seek legitimacy through an assault on it and high-level corruption? It is a misperception that the Russian state is too weak to strike at them. The man who unleashed his security forces to raze Grozny can make war on a handful of plundering oligarchs.
On the one hand, Putin is the oligarchs’ creature; on the other, he no doubt understands that if he is ever to bring about Russia’s economic recovery, the state needs the enormous wealth the oligarchs have seized in the name of “privatization.” The potential benefits of repatriating the wealth that has been taken abroad illegally–between $150 billion and $350 billion, according to some estimates–far exceed all the empty promises of Western foreign investment and burdensome loans. Putin seems prepared to use the state’s power to collect taxes, pay back wages and pensions, and mobilize internal resources for investment, which is a start. Poverty in Russia, as he has emphasized, is “mind-boggling.”
The votes of those millions of poor Russians contributed to the Communist Party’s strong showing (despite being virtually banned from state-run media, its candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, received nearly a third of the votes), refuting the Western axiom that it is moribund. Putin’s unusual public acknowledgment of the Communist Party’s strength and his admission that the Kremlin has failed to address the problems of the poor and working class suggest that he may extend his alliance with the Communists in the Parliament (a deal struck this past January) to the government he will soon form. If so, as a price for their participation, the Communists will surely demand action against the oligarchs–probably some measure of “deprivatization.”
What kind of political system will emerge under Putin? The accession to the presidency of a former KGB agent, who spent his formative years in a service that stands for the very antithesis of democratic openness, is troubling. There was little in the campaign to reassure the West of his commitment to basic liberties. The use of the state media to smear liberal reformer Grigory Yavlinsky by playing on anti-Semitism and homophobia had ominous overtones. And Putin’s contempt for an independent, critical press was obvious in the rough treatment accorded to the Radio Liberty journalist Andrei Babitsky, whose mistake was reporting the truth about Russian brutality in Chechnya.
For now, the restabilization of Russia’s disintegrating nuclear infrastructure and arsenal must be Washington’s highest priority. Far-reaching disarmament agreements must be negotiated and programs for Russia’s denuclearization seriously funded. For the same reason, nothing should be done to provoke Russia under Putin into building more nuclear weapons–no further expansion of NATO and no building of a National Missile Defense system that would revise the ABM treaty. So far, the signs are not good. Although Putin has urged the new Duma to finally ratify the Start II treaty and has re-established relations with NATO (broken off after the Kosovo war), Washington continues to push for NATO expansion and unilateral revisions to the ABM treaty. And at informal talks in Geneva this past January, Defense Department officials opposed a Russian offer to reduce the number of warheads on each side to 1,500 in the future Start III talks.
Above all, the stability of the world’s largest nuclear country depends on its economic recovery. Washington should now respect Russia’s ability to decide what constitutes constructive economic policy rather than arrogantly impose conditions. Both Washington and Moscow must understand, after nearly a decade of lost opportunities, that without economic recovery and social justice for the dispossessed, there will be no stability, democracy or pro-Westernism in Russia.