ISSUE 2-2003
Tomas Urbanec
Дмитрий Ольшанский Елена Киселева Владимир Воронов Михаил Пашков  & Валерий Чалый
Евгений Сергеев Владимир Альтов
Олег Панфилов
Ярослав Шимов

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles and/or discussions are those of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or positions of the publisher.

ISSUE 2, 2003

     Financial Times marked President Putin a “diplomatic Houdini” after his visit of Britain. No wonder: former KGB officer, who agreed to NATO enlargement and presence of the U.S. Armed Forces at the territory of former Soviet Union, became, just like his predecessor Peter I., a clear pro-Western, in spite of negative reactions of power ministries representatives. He is a welcomed guest at the Buckingham Palace, just as at presidential ranch in Crawford, Texas. French President approves results of referendum in Chechnya, a country that was pacified in a barbarian way, and German Chancellor is excited to hear Putin speaking German.
     Reasons for this general craze are unclear – Financial Times offer the conclusion that Putin is the only person that is able to stop nuclear arms proliferation from the Russian territory. But that is only replacement of one mystery by another one. Why shall this parvenu be the one and only – when he is at least the fourth in a row? And gosh, wasn’t Catherine II. also a reformer and a European? There were times when the one and only was named Gorbatchev, followed by another one, by Yeltsin, sole guarantee of Russian path towards democracy. It was Peter I., who was the first to open windows to Europe. But Peter cared about Western technologies and forms, not about values and contents, his reason was gaining power that was to be used later against the West. The other only ones had the same reasons, the only difference was where the power was aimed at, but Russian rulers always knew solution to this, and their only limitation was the Arctic Ocean.
     Another answer to this might be a reference to the demand after Russian natural resources. But it wouldn’t be too difficult to prove that if someone needs natural resources, then it is most of all Russia itself. A potential buyer has an option of choice, be this choice called restructuring, diversification or substitution. A seller has nothing else in his hands but non-renewable natural resources. Without these resources, the USD income would drop by half, and words like economic or social crash are too weak to describe the future reality.
     In any case, Russian public opinion is flattered by this pro-Western style, and between 60 to 70% of Russian citizens praise improvement of Russia’s international policy position during Putin’s rule. The question here is what did Putin do to improve it, besides one phone call from September 11, 2001. That is what makes him a real Houdini.
     According to WCIOM opinion surveys between 40 to 50% of respondents approve “provision of political freedoms and democracy” on domestic scene. These numbers are coming out at the same time when the last private TV station was liquidated, when the cabinet acts strictly as an executive body, and when the already tame parliament shall become a problem free pro-presidential majority after the elections.
     It is also strange to see how is the economic situation of the country viewed by the public. While the public evaluation of foreign policy is probably based on pictures of Putin chatting at a ranch in Texas or Putin on a carriage ride in London, then the economy efficiency has a more profound scales. But then the measures do not reflect the reality. In 2000, during the strongest economy growth, the satisfaction with Putin’s activities in economy sphere dropped by almost 10%. That signals that something is wrong – either the researches, or statistical data, or, to hell with it, the reality itself is responsible. On the other hand, it is truth that Putin has nothing in common with efficiency of Russian economy.
     50% of respondents say that Russian president meets the expectations they laid on him, but what expectation could have been laid on someone appointed by Yeltsin, and who was an unknown person until then? Nevertheless the trust in president never dropped below 60% since 2000, it even reached above 80% several times (December 2002). Among personal features that people value most are energy and decisiveness (50% of respondents). It somehow doesn’t matter that this “energetic and decisive” man silently spent his vacation in Crimea during the Kursk submarine catastrophe that shook the whole country. All other positive features, including for example “experienced politician”, “a person capable of bringing order to the country”, “a person with features of a leader”, or simply “a likable person”, did not reach even a 50% support.
     Regarding negative features that he is reproached for by the public opinion, then way ahead is the “connection to the ?family?”, e.g. with Yeltsin and his people that are still present in presidential administration. It reflects the reality that he took over the power from generally disliked Yeltsin, and that he did not distance himself from him neither verbally nor practically (for example by personal changes in Kremlin’s administration) since then. Even a very biased critic would not be able to find traces of disloyalty towards the “First Russian President”, as the official title says. One of the possible explanations could be that Putin still views Yeltsin as his boss. He was always used to obey his superiors, and the last and most prominent one was Yeltsin. The very rare images from social events of our days show that it is retired Yeltsin who speaks, while the president only listens. None the less it is this issue where Putin can very easily gain points once he needs them – for example by strictly distancing himself from Yeltsin’s era and from ?the family?.
     The fact that he doesn’t have a “clearly defined policy line” matters only to a mere 5 to 10% of respondents. And the truth is that this “energetic and decisive person” definitely has none. Unless this policy line in the domestic policy doesn’t mean “to palm oil all the necessary spheres and install the control panel in the Kremlin”, and in the foreign policy “you pretend that we are a superpower, and we will pretend that we are a democracy”. Probably nobody cares about complete lack of economy policy – such issue wasn’t even included in the research. Mrs. Putin wore during the above-mentioned visit of Britain such dresses that could have been called “revenge of a fashion designer”. She allegedly wanted to copy the summer British style, but it ended up the same as when the Russian police pretend that it protects the law and citizens; when the military pretends that it raises young men and fights terrorism; and when the Minister of Information pretends that he looks after the independence of media. Everything is the same way. Vladimir Putin is probably a decent person, intelligent, and besides this a real political and social Houdini. Which is a good basis for his reelection, and if we whisper that the situation could be much worse, then it is good news for us as well. But Russia urgently needs some better times. If Putin prepares conditions for this to his currently distant successor, then it would be the maximum one could reasonably expect. Let's hope he doesn't end up as Houdini.

Print version
(Lilia Shevtsova. Putin’s Russia. Carnegi Endowment for International Peace, Washington D.C., 2003. – 306 p.)
Ярослав Шимов
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