Sunday, January 14, 2001


Putin's Governing Style: One From Column A, One From B


STANFORD--A year since his ascension to Russia's presidency, first as acting president and, since March, the country's elected leader, both Vladimir V. Putin and Russia stand disenchanted and diminished before the world and their own battered countrymen.

True, industrial growth has resumed in Russia and incomes are rising, but whether this economic uptick is due more to skyrocketing oil prices--Russia is a major exporter--or efficiency remains to be seen. Even under the favorable conditions of the last months of 2000, inflation has stayed at roughly 20%. Both infant mortality and poverty have declined, though about one-third of the country's population live below the official poverty line. Foreign investment has increased, yet it is still miniscule compared with the Soviet Union's former socialist vassals, Poland and Hungary. Despite efforts at improving the legal framework for doing business in Russia and the introduction of a flat income tax, capital flight is on the increase. The country's hard-currency reserves have swelled, giving the government a basis for claiming Russia's solvency, but the good news is tempered by the dangerous toying with default on its mountain of debt to the Paris Club.

The much advertised strengthening of federal power in the regions, which grew into independent fiefdoms while former President Boris N. Yeltsin was fighting communists in Moscow, has produced mixed results, at best. It has failed most visibly in the Russian Far East Maritime Province, where Gov. Yevgeny Nazdratenko's notorious misrule continues unchecked. The guerrilla war in Chechnya has grown into a chronic condition, with every week marked by an assassination of another government official, another prominent spokesman for conciliation or some other brutal terrorist act.

Under these circumstances, it should come as a surprise that Putin's popularity is still high (68% to 70%), due largely to increases in pensions and government salaries. The rest of Putin's initiatives are barely scraping by. According to the polls conducted by the authoritative All-Russian Center for Public Opinion, only 3% are disposed favorably toward his judicial reforms, and 16% approve of his diplomatic activity. The same population considers as the most memorable event of the year, not the presidential elections or Putin's reforms, but the Kursk tragedy, the grossly mishandled catastrophe of Russia's most modern nuclear submarine.

Most remarkable, after a year of Putin's stewardship, nobody can figure out who he really is. While 21% think him a "patriot"--that is, a politician not beholden to foreign interests--roughly the same number believe him to be a "democrat," a term identified with the liberal reformers of the Yeltsin era and not the most popular political label in today's Russia. A barely noticeable sprinkling of citizens, 3% to 4%, recognize him, alternatively, as a social democrat, a liberal or a conservative. The biggest group of all, fully one-third of the country, believe him to be a statist, an advocate of a strong, paternalistic state. A little under one-third confess to having absolutely no idea what part of Russia's political spectrum their president identifies with.

Seen from the outside, the picture, too, is fragmented and contradictory. Apparently an advocate of a monetarist, liberal economic policy, including the reduction of marginal tax rates to a level (13%) that other tax havens can only dream of, Putin is selectively sentimental about Russia's communist past and has gone to great lengths to have Josef Stalin's old hymn become new Russia's official anthem. He has been playing footsie with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein; is reportedly ready to sell missiles, attack submarines and nuclear-powered equipment to Iran; has declared his intentions for going steady with Cuba; and advocated regional alliances with India and China. But at the same time, Putin swears by Russia's partnership with the United States, sees Russia as a natural part of the new Europe and recites his mantra welcoming foreign investment in Russia every time he visits one of the G-7 nations.

On a first-name basis with Prime Minister Tony Blair and celebrating a family Christmas with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his wife, the wannabe new European Putin has been quite open about his distaste for political opposition and an independent press. At one point, he stooped so low as to blame the Kursk submarine disaster last August on the Russian media. Regardless of his protestations abroad, his carefully calibrated attacks on the press have emboldened the prosecutor general's office, an old Soviet establishment of Stalinist vintage, to go on fishing expeditions against the country's major media organizations. Media mogul Vladimir A. Gusinsky aside, the media-chill factor can be measured by the absence of a single probing, not to say hostile, question from any Russian journalist at Putin's press conferences. These and similar signals that Putin has been sending to the Soviet-era bureaucracies have encouraged the old guard to such an extent that members of the anticommunist opposition among the intellectuals feel they have nothing left to do but clench their teeth and throw up their hands.

Is Putin, then, an authoritarian wolf in sheep's clothing, a Gen. Augusto Pinochet with a human face, as many commentators have suggested? Perhaps. Still, even this comforting Cold War picture does not square with his achievements: strengthening the judiciary, especially, the courts (the salaries of Russia's judges have been increased sufficiently for them not to have to resort to "outside income"); reducing the size of government and the opportunities for chicanery (a flat tax of 13% and rationalizing customs duties is a real blow against government corruption); serious efforts toward restoring a balance between federal and local power in the regions; cutting army personnel and introducing fundamental military reform meant to transform the huge Soviet-era imperial military machine into a small and affordable modern force.

Is it not possible, then, to understand Putin by reason alone? It is, indeed, if we use an interpretive scheme of a postmodern kind. There is no better example than Putin's most recent legislation on state symbolism, overwhelmingly approved by Russia's parliament. Those symbols are the classic 15th-century double-headed eagle of the Muscovite czars, the 18th-century Westernized Imperial tricolor--both adopted by Yeltsin by decree--and a Stalinist anthem, which caused chagrin among Russia's anticommunist intellectuals. If that were not enough, the armed forces, the least reformed element of the new Russian state, have been allowed to keep their red banner and the appellation "comrade."

This combination of symbols doesn't quite make sense. But if we look at the set as one of those postmodern architectural concoctions, the picture begins to add up to something comprehensible. Imagine Putin's Russia as a postmodern building. Its base is borrowed from a staid, neoclassical Wall Street tradition. On top of it is a modern European structure crowned by a spire taken from a baroque Stalinist skyscraper. Atop the spire is the double-headed eagle flying the Western democratic tricolor, along with the red banner that once flew over the Kremlin and at the end of World War II over the German Reichstag. Concealed inside the eagle is an MP3 player blaring out the old Soviet anthem, praising this time, not Lenin and Stalin, but Russia under God.

Putin's Russia may be short on coherence, but in the postmodern, post-ideological, triangulated world, a menu is enough of a system.

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Gregory Freidin Is a Professor and Chairman of the Slavic Department, Stanford University. he Is Collaborating, With Victoria E. Bonnell, on a Book, "Conjuring up Russia: Symbols and Rituals of the New Russian State."

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