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

Putin's Recipe For Success

Acting President Putin's phenomenal popularity is founded on his vision of a "strong state" prepared to ride roughshod over democratic principles.
By Viatcheslav Morozov

The image of Acting President Vladimir Putin as a liberal, committed to democracy, may be nothing more than a side-show aimed at softening potential opposition in Russia and the West.


Politicians and analysts alike remain unsure how far he is prepared to go in his military campaign against the Chechen rebels. Russian democrats, meantime, are concerned that the March 26 presidential election is rapidly becoming a one-horse race.


But there can be little doubt that Putin's actions as a hardline leader - prepared to annihilate the nation's enemies - is a solid springboard for election victory.


Fortunately for Putin, the Russian public, it seems, has little desire to discover the truth behind Russian military losses. In sharp contrast to the last war, the majority of the population, whilst naturally regretting the losses suffered "by our boys", continues to support the campaign.


As a result, there is little reason to expect that Putin will not be distracted from his plans in Chechnya, regardless of increasing military losses or Western condemnation.


Most Russians believe previous attempts to strike a deal with the Chechen separatists led to the creation of a criminal regime in Chechnya. Consequently, any Chechen leadership that is not controlled by Moscow will continue to pose a threat to law and order in the country as a whole.


However, the public's attitude to the "anti-terrorist" campaign is only one element of Putin's phenomenal popularity. In the past few years, Russian society has been pinning its hopes on the vision of a "strong state" - a phenomenon stemming from the absence of any significant liberal alternative. A recent survey by the Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion showed that 72 per cent of people believe that civil order is the most important issue in Russia today "even if achieving that order means limiting some civil liberties and compromising democratic principles".


Today, Putin embodies this image of a "strong Russian state". And, contrary to Western beliefs, the "liberal reformers" and the "communist-nationalist patriots" share this vision - a fact echoed in the recent rapprochement between the Unity faction, which supports Putin, and the Communist Party.


This desire for a strong state system is not unique to Russia - it is common to most of Eastern Europe. The difference lies in Russia's relations with the West. Russia is determined to resist the imposition of Western values on its governing principles and to establish its political independence.


In this context, one cannot overestimate the significance of last year's conflict in Kosovo. NATO's attempts to bring a halt to ethnic cleansing were depicted by the Russian media as a front for a hidden agenda amongst the Western allies. Hence, the Russian public now views the virtues of democracy with a wholly new cynicism.


And Putin's political rivals have done little to inspire the voters with confidence in the democratic process.


In December's parliamentary elections, Grigory Yavlinsky's Yabloko - which had previously spoken out against the Chechen campaign - lost much of its following over accusations of "double standards" as the party attempted both to exploit a nostalgia for Soviet times and promote its links to the ruling elite.


The Union of Rightwing Forces (URF) - which boasts the redoubtable Irina Khakamada, the human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov and former prime minister Yegor Gaidar among its ranks - could provide a viable alternative to Putin's cabal. But the URF has thrown its weight behind the acting president in the hope of winning his support for its ambitious reform program. Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not Putin will be inclined to return this favour in the event of an election victory.


The vast majority of voters believe there are no real alternatives to Putin. But this fact, per se, is not a threat to Russian democracy. The real threat is the cynical attitude of society itself to democratic values and human rights abuse - which raises deep concern for Russia's future.


Viatcheslav Morozov is senior lecturer in European Studies at St. Petersburg University's School of International Relations.