Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Putin's Political Options

The Russian electorate waits with bated breath for President Vladimir Putin to show his true colours.

Russia's presidential elections were a limp and uninteresting affair. In essence, Vladimir Putin's victory was assured on New Year's Eve, 1999, when Boris Yeltsin retired from the post of president and asked the Russian people to forgive his past mistakes.

This unexpected gesture not only allowed the ruling cabal to move forward the elections from June to March, but it also increased respect for Yeltsin amongst the voters - respect which rubbed off on his chosen heir.

So now Russia finds herself in the hands of Vladimir Putin. But, while his views remain a virtual mystery, the president's fate and his role in history will depend largely on the interrelationship of forces in the political arena and on the stance adopted by all layers of Russian society.

Putin is believed, and it seems with good cause, to be the front man for the so-called Family - Boris Yeltsin's inner circle. A leading role in this group, and in securing Putin's promotion, has clearly been played by Boris Berezovsky, the most influential of the famed "oligarchs" - a small circle of financial magnates who are effectively ruling Russia.

Of course, the new president owes almost everything to Berezovsky and the Family. But now that he has won an absolute majority, Vladimir Putin has finally become an independent political figure capable of removing - or at least tempering - the influence wielded by the oligarchs over Russian politics.

Shortly before the elections, Putin publicly promised that he would fight to undermine the power of the "grey cardinals". It remains to be seen whether or not this desire is genuine. With typical confidence, Berezovsky has already described Putin's pledge as "unrealisable".

But, if Putin does decide to take on the oligarchs, he will not be short of support. Most of those who are in favour of market reforms in Russia - including such influential figures as the energy boss Anatoly Chubais and the leader of the Union of Rightist Forces, Sergei Kirienko - have thrown their weight behind the newly elected president.

There is genuine cause for optimism in economic spheres. Many experts echo the opinion expressed by Alexei Reznikovich, a partner of the consulting company McKinsey & Co, who told the daily newspaper Kommersant on March 28, "...if you had to choose a moment for the beginning of serious economic reforms...then you couldn't choose a better moment."

In any event, Putin's main opponent, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, polled just under 30 per cent of the vote - almost the same amount as he received in the first round of voting in 1996 and a clear improvement on the Communist Party total for December's Duma elections.

It seems reasonable, then, to assume that those who voted for Putin - as opposed to Zyuganov -- oppose any return to a planned economy and a guaranteed minimum standard of living if that means imposing restrictions on economic freedom. This would indicate that a market-oriented economic policy is unlikely to be a cause for more disappointment. There is also a chance that the issue of land ownership will be resolved and that the rights of investors will be protected.

Optimists are predicting a yearly growth in the Russian GNP for the coming years of 8-10 per cent. True, this presupposes that high oil prices will be maintained. But the budget for 2000 was established on the basis of $19 per barrel, and a recent decision taken by the OPEC countries gives grounds to hope that the price of Russian oil won't fall below $20 over the coming year.

The war in Chechnya poses much more of a threat to economic and political stability. So far, the campaign has been financed by exploiting the world's market for oil and gas. But the reconstruction of the "liberated" territories and the ongoing partisan war will demand an increase in expenditure at the very moment when income from oil export hangs in the balance. Furthermore, a steep rise in casualties as the war rages through the mountains could severely damage the president's popularity.

However, the main danger of the Chechen gamble is that it has strengthened the anti-democratic movement in society and has created the preconditions for fostering authoritarian tendencies on the Russian political scene.

Putin's entourage currently consists of people with diametrically opposed views - ultra-liberal economists, who are developing the government's programme of market reforms, and ultra-conservative generals, who are running the military campaign. President Putin silenced all talk of appointing a military reformist, Andrei Nikolaev, Minister of Defence when he extended Igor Sergeyev's term of office for another year.

In choosing his ruling cabal, Putin has shown a clear preference for former comrades from the KGB/FSB. His intention of creating a team of former security men to fight against corruption is particularly characteristic.

It is entirely possible that the struggle against corruption will become Putin's favourite hobby-horse. The fact that government bureaucrats can be bought is one of the most serious problems in Russia today.

However, Lev Timofeev, a professor at the Russian State Humanities University, made an important point when he said that the struggle against corruption could become an all-embracing national ideology, which will inevitably entail an increase in activity from the security services and create a new basis for the suppression of the opposition.

In the event of "kompromat" (compromising material) wars breaking out, the executive authorities will be increasingly tempted to combat the opposition by accusing rival politicians of bribe-taking and corruption.

A genuine solution to the problem of corruption is impossible without a radical rejection of the current methods of management, according to which the state acts as the direct and most influential participant in economic activities.

The Chechen campaign and the mood it has evoked in society may have the most disturbing effects in this sphere. The war unavoidably increases the influence of the military-industrial complex, which enjoys government support. The growth in defence spending and repeated calls for a rebirth of the arms industry demonstrate that leaders in the defense sectors are standing on the brink of a new heyday.

If the government and the president continue to move in this direction, the power of the oligarchs will inevitably be boosted -- which in turn is likely to prompt Putin to forge new links with the Communists. As a result, the Russian education system is likely to become more militarised (the introduction of military training in schools would be the first step) and the transition to a professional army may become an impossibility.

The war in Chechnya and the mobilisation of informational resources for Putin's electoral campaign have already led to attacks on the freedom of speech. Two state channels - ORT and RTR - which broadcast to the entire nation, have in recent months ceased to fulfill their role as information providers and have been transformed into cogs in the propaganda machine.

Almost nobody who voted for Vladimir Putin, be they highly visible politicians such as Anatoly Chubais or ordinary voters, can be certain that they have made the right choice. On the other hand, there are few who believe that Putin came to power in order to reestablish a bloody dictatorship. There is a mood of alarmed uncertainty as we wait for the president to take his first steps.

It would be wrong to assume that March 26 was little more than a logical conclusion to the Yeltsin era. The dust has yet to settle, but it is already only too clear that liberal politicians can no longer rely on widespread popular support, as they did in August 1991 and October 1993. In sharp contrast to the situation which arose in the 1990s, the support of foreign leaders and international organisations has ceased to be a major factor on the Russian political scene.

But nevertheless, however weak the institutions of civic society may be in Russia today, the burden of responsibility must be borne by all her citizens and not just by Vladimir Putin alone.

Vyacheslav Morozov is a political analyst from St Petersburg