Beware of the Many Masks of Russia’s Putin

by | Feb 6, 2001

Russia is in the news: a crackdown on the media and the oligarchs; the Kursk submarine disaster; restructuring of the Federation, including the creation of seven federal superdistricts headed mostly by generals; and a change in the way members of the upper house of the Federal Assembly are appointed. President Vladimir Putin has visited London, […]

Russia is in the news: a crackdown on the media and the oligarchs; the Kursk submarine disaster; restructuring of the Federation, including the creation of seven federal superdistricts headed mostly by generals; and a change in the way members of the upper house of the Federal Assembly are appointed. President Vladimir Putin has visited London, Berlin, Pyongyang, the Okinawa G-7 Summit, and the U.N. Millennium Summit, and U.S. President Bill Clinton visited Moscow in June. Meanwhile, the Kremlin remains adamantly opposed to deployment of a national missile defense (NMD) by the United States.

Where is Russia heading? To answer that question who is running Russia today and what vision the Kremlin has for Russia’s future.

The group that today is running the Kremlin and running policy in the Kremlin basically is divided into three factions. One is the more liberal, reform-oriented St. Petersburg faction of economists primarily — people like German Gref, Aleksei Kudrin, and others.

The second group, most prominently represented by Prime Minister Kasyanov, is the old “Yeltsin’s family” group with connections to such business tycoons as Roman Abramovich and the banker Aleksandr Mamut. There is a debate about Berezovsky and the role he is playing now. It looks as if the falling out between Berezovsky and the Kremlin is serious.

Third — and important — is a group of former FSB (Federal Security Service) internal KGB officers.

I believe that these groups have different visions for Russian foreign policy and especially for Russian domestic policies. These groups have different approaches to how to handle freedom of the media, democracy, etc. Also, these groups have different priorities as to the survival of the Russian “business tycoons”, of the oligarchs.

What we don’t see coming from either Mr. Putin himself or his top decision makers is a rhetoric that we would expect if he was serious about the rule of law as opposed to what Putin calls “dictatorship of law.” You have a lot of rhetoric about “dictatorship of law” or, as Dimitri so aptly put it, how much dictatorship — and how much law — there is going to be. But law enforcement today is not applied evenly to everyone and is completely driven by the Kremlin political agenda.

We have not heard, in the Putin State of the Federation Speech, any discussion of the civil society. We have not heard discussion of the freedom of the press. He did say he supports the freedom of the press but then immediately jumped into discussing the anti-state role of the press and how bad the private ownership of the press is. This smacks very much of Soviet-style language.

Second, the new structure that Putin is building to govern Russia is a vertical structure with the Kremlin at the apex. It’s a structure with seven federal districts led by supergovernors or governors general, who happen to be generals of the military, the police, and the KGB — five out of seven — to supervise the elected governors. The right of the president to dismiss governors, and the ability of the governors to dismiss elected mayors, undermine the federal nature of the Russian Federation and the local governments.

Putin is trying to create a new constitutional structure without revising the constitution. As a response to that, the upper house, the Council of the Federation, is now raising the possibility that a law on constitutional reform, a law on constitutional assembly, should be promulgated and the constitution should be changed.

If you go to changes in the constitution in Russia when there is a confrontation between the presidency, the executive branch, and the upper house of the Parliament on one hand, and the presidency and the leaders of the business community on the other hand, as well as between the presidency and the media, that is a prescription for instability. That is a prescription in which we do not really know what kind of outcome we may get.

How Russia may integrate with the West? As Putin said, his priority is having Russia be a European power, having Russia attract foreign investment, having Russia be culturally European and part of the global economy. How would this instability, together with his strongarm tactics, assist Russia’s integration into the Western community?

Furthermore, Putin goes to China and to North Korea and uses the vocabulary and body language to build a coalition between Russia and China. As Professor Steve Blank of the U.S. Army War College pointed out elsewhere, Russia is inviting India to join the Shanghai Five, a group that includes China, Russia, and Central Asian countries. How is that going to work out if Russia is supporting Chinese threats and conditions vis-

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at the Allison Center of the Katherine and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute at The Heritage Foundation.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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