Sunday, March 26, 2000
In the Days of Reform Fatigue, the Policeman
plumber will come," begins a 1980s poem by Dmitry Prigov, "and will smash
the toilet; the gasman will break the gas stove; the electrician will do
in the wiring. But, behold, the policeman cometh to say to them all:
'Enough of this horsing around--.' " The poem was eerily prescient about
the course of reform in Russia from Mikhail S. Gorbachev to Vladimir V.
Putin. Was Gorbachev the plumber? Was Boris N. Yeltsin the electrician?
Was the demonic magnate Boris A. Berezovsky the gasman? Or was it the
other way around? As Russians make their way to their polling stations
today to elect their second president, they have no doubt that the
policeman is Putin.
Order is what
Russian citizens yearn for, and they have, according to polls, invested
their hopes in a former intelligence operative, a man of apparent
self-discipline but unpretentious in demeanor and looks. What may have
been a liability in a politician in the more charismatic times of
perestroika and post-communist Russia has become in the days of reform
fatigue an invaluable asset. Gray is beautiful.
Putin's reputation as a man of law and
order stems from his uncompromising stand on Chechnya. The current Russian
word for chaos and disorder is bespredel, meaning, a state of existing
without limits. Putin resolved to put an end to bespredel in Chechnya,
even at the price of removing restraints on the Russian army. Most of his
compatriots are relieved: Here is a man who knows how to set limits.
The question is whether Putin will
respect the limits that the country's fledgling constitutional democracy
sets on the power of the Russian state. The fact that Putin served as a
KGB officer should not be considered decisive in a country whose towering
reform figures of the last two decades came from the ranks of the party
responsible for the Soviet debacle, including the Gulag. Other factors
seem far more important.
election mandate. Putin's margin of victory is expected to be spectacular,
which may, paradoxically, signify a diminished mandate, one stemming not
from the depth of popular support but from the absence of a credible
opponent. With the exception of his position on Chechnya, he has
consistently refused to disclose his intentions as president. He thus
bears some blame for making the race less of a sport than it ought to have
been. Even the support offered Putin--every significant political group or
personality in the country has signed on--conceals a serious liability. By
filling his bandwagon with whomever has been willing to jump on, Putin has
cast himself in the image of the proverbial herder of cats. What can the
Agrarian Party, a state-subsidy addict and, until recently, a coalition
partner of Russia's dyed-in-the-wool Communists, have in common with the
Union of the Rightist forces, monetarists and free-marketers bent on
eliminating subsidies and supporting privatization of land?
* Political base. Who is Putin counting
on? For a man who had never held political office, who made his career in
a government bureaucracy and who wishes to reestablish the authority of
the state, the answer is: the state bureaucracy, including that branch
where Putin began his rise, the state security services. Accordingly, he
proposes to raise substantially the salaries of top- and middle-level
government officials, thereby increasing their status and making them more
immune to pressure and bribes.
faith in the possibility of reforming one of the world's
longest-established corrupt bureaucracies by bureaucratic means gives a
clue to his curious occasional dance with the Communist Party, for
example, his support of the speaker of the Duma, Gennady N. Seleznyov, at
the expense of his free-market allies. Unlike Yeltsin, Putin has no
particular ax to grind against the Communists. Indeed, he cherishes the
hope that they will transform themselves into an association along the
lines of European social democracy and be respectful of individual
property rights. Such a transformation, according to him, should serve to
stabilize Russian society and state.
The oligarchs. Putin's stated attitude toward the problem of Russia's
massive concentration of wealth is to maintain the status quo while making
sure no existing laws are broken. But if Putin's reputation for law and
order is to survive, he will have to deal with that problem and the
natural monopolies in a way that will satisfy the country's expectations
for a level economic playing field.
Center and periphery. Step outside the capital, and you will hear that the
most missed attribute of Soviet power in provincial Russia are the limits
Moscow used to set on the arbitrary rule of the local bosses. Putin plans
to restore some federal controls and support local government, too, which
might check the power of the heads of regions.
* The press and opposition. Putin's
apparent grasp of the importance of checks and balances in relations
between the center and the regions is not echoed in his attitudes toward
political opposition and a critical press. Russia's public television,
ORT, controlled, in effect, by Berezovsky, has unleashed a sickeningly
crude attack on the competing media empire of Vladimir A. Gusinsky, NTV,
which has been openly anti-war. For example, in a March 23 broadcast, ORT
showed Gusinsky's Israeli passport and repeatedly played a clip of him
breaking bread with a group of Orthodox rabbis. The video aimed to raise
questions about Gusinsky's allegiance to Russia and the legitimacy of his
media outlets. Apparently, Putin, who has refused to grant interviews to
Gusinsky-owned media because of their criticism of his Chechnya policy,
does not seem to be too unhappy.
is Putin? The most intriguing aspect of the new political terrain is how
Putin's personality and outlook will, his reticence notwithstanding,
dominate Russia's political culture. The contrast with Yeltsin cannot be
more dramatic. Although both came from a humble background, Putin is
decidedly a product of urban, modern Russia, indeed of its most Western
city and imperial capital, St. Petersburg. It is a telling detail that,
while serving as deputy mayor of Leningrad, as it was then called, Putin
replaced the obligatory Lenin portrait in his office with one of Peter the
Great, the czar who created St. Petersburg.
Yeltsin belonged to the generation of
party leaders who were short on education and long on administrative
experience. Putin, who has a doctorate in law from Petersburg State
University, speaks several languages, including perfect German, and is at
home in an intellectual and professional milieu. A graduate of a
construction engineering college, Yeltsin never learned to speak clearly;
Putin, a true Petersburger, articulates every word. Yeltsin had barely
traveled abroad before entering the national political scene. Putin has
traveled to, lived in and feels comfortable with the West. Unlike Yeltsin,
whose father and grandfather suffered in the purges and collectivization
of agriculture under Josef Stalin, and who has firsthand experience of
Stalinist repression, Putin insists he was only vaguely aware of the Gulag
and managed somehow not to connect it to the organization that recruited
him, the KGB. As president, Yeltsin had only a vague sense of how a market
economy operates. Putin learned it firsthand both in the West and as the
Leningrad official in charge of foreign investment. Yeltsin liked strong
drink. Putin, though not a teetotaler, prefers sobriety.
Disciplined and focused, Putin seems to
be cut out for a leader attempting a clean sweep. Many a Russian reformer,
beginning with Peter the Great, has been unmade by this task, too
absorbed, alas, to pay due attention to plumbing, gas and electricity.
- - -
Gregory Freidin Is Chairman of the Slavic
Languages Department at Stanford and Co-editor of "Russia at the
Barricades: Eyewitness Accounts of the Moscow Coup (August 1991)."
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