The reaction of the international media to Vladimir Putin’s now-inevitable return to the Kremlin next May has been nicely bifurcated into two distinct waves.
The first, which I wrote about last month, was that of completely unjustified surprise. Putin’s return was as preordained as Medvedev’s apparently liberal tendencies were a smokescreen, but commentators did their best to convince themselves otherwise, on both points, in the interest of having something to write about. The second and more insidious wave has been the one of apologetics that has broken since. Commentators and analysts have been lining up, not only to explain the ruling tandem’s bitch-slap to democracy, but also, worse, to justify and excuse it.
Like most Western apologies for autocratic regimes, these commentaries have been riddled with the sort of damp little holes in which weasel words like to take up residence. While the anti-imperialist left tends to use terms like “resistance movement” and “bulwark against hegemony” to describe its strongmen and terrorist organisations of choice, the right prefers the more cynical ring of those like “Western interests” and “stability” when encouraging corrupt and anti-democratic thugs. It is the second group that has come to Vladimir Putin’s defence over the course of the past fortnight.
Canvassing the opinions of bankers and economists, The New York Times reported that Putin’s return was being seen as “a net positive for foreign investors — regardless of whether they support the politics of it”. “The reunification of power in the Russian president in both title and practice […] creates a more predictable long-term outlook for companies like Exxon Mobil,” the paper reported, “which has just agreed to a major oil exploration deal in the Russian Arctic.” Economist Mikhail G. Delyagin summed up this reaction nicely: “Western businesses work wonderfully with dictators.”
The Financial Times‘ Christopher Caldwell wrote that Western reactions to the switch had been “too condescending” and that the flouting of democratic norms it represented was in fact its “big selling point”. While disagreeing with some of Putin’s strategies, which he described, in a marvellous understatement, as “rough”, Caldwell claimed that the returning czar “has exposed his country to fewer costs, fewer dangers and less embarrassment than his detractors think” and is “a living, breathing monument to [the West’s] historical culpability” for both NATO’s intervention in Kosovo and “the dismemberment and servility” it had planned for the country in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse 20 years ago.
But the real kick in the teeth came from Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen F. Cohen in the pages of The Washington Post. “Much of the US commentary following the announcement that [Putin] will return to the Kremlin as president in 2012 is simplistic morality posing as political analysis,” they crowed. According to them, US economic and military interests, “the preferences of Russia’s ruling class,” and, most laughably, opinion polls demonstrating popular support for Putin amongst his countrymen, render the outcome entirely acceptable.
Such claims are easily disputed. Last month I wrote that Medvedev’s record contradicted his much-touted liberal outlook. This week I would like to suggest that Putin’s contradicts his much-touted stabilising influence. There is no reason to believe that his future will vindicate those who have come, pens unsheathed, to his aid.
Let us begin with the stability of the country’s economy and investment climate. It is true that the unresolved matter of who would occupy the Kremlin from next year — a matter manufactured by the ruling tandem themselves and sold in bulk by the domestic and international media — resulted in a certain uncertainty among foreign investors. The timing of Putin and Medvedev’s announcement, a full six months before the presidential election, was in part a desperate attempt to address to this. Capital flight amounted to $34 billion in 2010 and has already passed $50 billion this year. But the stability it has resulted in is likely to be but a brief reprieve.
With almost 50% of Russia’s GDP reliant on oil exports, the country finds itself on the brink of an economic catastrophe that, many are now suggesting, no one will be able to prevent. The person who, for the first eight years of this century, allowed the country to become a petro-state in the first place should be considered among the least qualified to try. As it stands, the country’s budget can only be balanced if the price of oil were to rise above $125 a barrel. The country’s stock market is down 20% and the rouble at a two-year low against the dollar. While Putin has started talking as a result about the country needing to swallow some “bitter pills” — higher taxes on the wealthy, as yet undefined cost-cutting measures — the official rhetoric continues to diverge from reality. After raising pensions and wages, in a move that amounted to little more than an electoral bribe and helped to push up inflation to an absurd 8%, Putin last month complained that they had outstripped productivity. He this week promised to spend over thirteen billion dollars in the next three years to revamp over 1700 weapons factories.
This latter point is especially striking in light of recent tensions surrounding such military spending. While Medvedev is the supposed liberal, his $620 billion military spending program has been a point of contention among the ruling elites. It was contentious enough to cause Alexei Kudrin, Putin’s friend and finance minister, to say he would not serve under Medvedev were he to become prime minister. Kudrin and Putin might be as thick as thieves — and I use that cliché intentionally — but the former’s attack on the latter’s protégé was an implicit attack on the latter’s own policies. Putin might be publicly defending the former finance minister now. But Novoya Gazeta, Anna Politkovskaya’s paper, has suggested that, like every other decision Medvedev has ever made, Putin probably green-lit Kudrin’s sacking, too.
It is unlikely that Kudrin would have thought too highly of Putin’s irresponsible electoral bribes, either, especially not with the gunship heading straight for the iceberg. Meanwhile, the number of Russians living below the poverty line continues to grow, increasing by over 10% in the first six months of this year alone. Not that such citizens ever factor that much into the ruling elite’s calculations. Which is another reason foreign investors should be wary about the so-called stability of the status quo. With Russia ranked 154th on 2010 Corruption Perception Index, sharing a spot with countries like Kenya, Tajikistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the ruling elite’s calculations tend only to serve the ruling elite.
That this elite should have wished, in the main, for Putin’s return, is thus hardly surprising. Rather than justifying that return, however, it actually represents another reason why it should not take place. When Caldwell praises Putin’s political castration of the corporate oligarchs who came to prominence in Boris Yeltsin’s time, he declines to mention what has replaced them: a network of loyal state oligarchs and members of the security establishment, or siloviki, who have made the isomorphism between wealth and political power much more absolute.
What the extreme Kemalist periphery of Turkey’s military-security establishment is to that country, so the siloviki is to this one: a shadowy deep state that acts according to its own interests, hoists its members into key positions of corporate and political power, and gets rid of anyone that should deign to stand in its way. Comprised almost entirely of current, former and so-called reservist agents of the KGB and its successor agencies, in particular the FSB, the siloviki as a whole do not form a cohesive group. There were factional battles for influence throughout the 1990s and into the early stages of Putin’s presidency. But, in the main, their purpose remains broadly the same: to ensure the unimpeded flow of funds into their member’s coffers. Putin, a former director of the FSB and company man through and through, is said to be worth US$40 billion. He handpicked a number of the siloviki to hold key positions in strategic companies and ministries, mostly related to the energy sector, at the beginning of his regime. Unspoken in Medvedev’s admission to anti-corruption advocates that some $30 billion is stolen from the government’s budget every year is the fact that the government probably takes a cut.
Putin, for one, is well-practiced at such thievery. When head of the Committee for External Relations in the Saint Petersburg Mayor’s Office in the early 1990s, today’s president-unelect issued licenses permitting the export of metals valued at $93 million in exchange for food aid that never came to the city. As Yuri Felshtinsky and Vladimir Pribylovsky have noted, however, this is only the total amount of the losses that can be accounted for. “But the government of Russia issued export quotas on raw materials to a value of about one billion dollars during those years,” they write in The Age of Assassins: The Rise and Rise of Vladimir Putin. “What happened to the remaining $900 million is not known. What is known is that 997 tons of highly refined A5-brand aluminium, worth over $717 million, disappeared — as did 20,000 tons of cement and 100,000 tons of cotton, costing $120 million.”
Of course, money and raw materials aren’t the only thing the siloviki are good at disappearing. The assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 is widely believed to have been perpetrated by members of the security establishment. That the country refuses to extradite the key suspect in the case, former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi, is telling. As is that fact that, while suspects have been charged with Anna Politkovskaya’s murder, which took place the same year, investigators are no closer to establishing — or, at least, to revealing — who actually ordered the shooting.
An old boy’s network with access to Po-210, what’s particularly distressing about this so-called deep state is the fact that it isn’t even all that deep. At times it appears to be right on there on the surface, reality peering through a simulacrum of democratic process. It’s like one of Sabina’s paintings in Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In 1999, by which time he had become prime minister and was well on his way to the presidency, Putin told a gathering of FSB agents: “We are in power again, this time forever.” Can there be any doubt why this same establishment should eagerly await his return? While Putin has not always bowed to their demands, he nevertheless remains one of their own. Medvedev does not. It is only of secondary importance to note that the latter’s promised crackdown on corruption — something it is hard to believe would have ever eventuated, but still –would have been in direct opposition to this establishment’s interests.
That such interests are in turn in direct opposition to those of the general public is why the latter group’s invocation in the apologies of Caldwell, vanden Heuvel and Cohen, and The Irish Times‘ Séamus Martin, strikes me as so unseemly. It struck me as similarly unseeingly when Medvedev appeared on television last week and claimed that he was stepping down because “Putin undoubtedly is the most authoritative politician in our country, and his ratings are higher.”
One needn’t point out that Putin’s poll numbers have slipped in recent months to discredit this argument. For one thing, it would ignore the point that his numbers are still high enough to win him any position he might conceivably run for. More importantly, it would also validate the efficacy and accuracy of the polls. “The interrogative process,” Christopher Hitchens wrote of opinion polling in his 1992 article ‘Voting in the Passive Voice’, “is very distinctly weighted against the asking of an intelligent question or the recording of a thoughtful answer.” In Putin’s Russia, this is especially true. “I have to tell you something,” Oleg Savelev told ForeignPolicy‘s Julia Ioffe this week: “Our numbers don’t track public opinion; they track the effectiveness of propaganda.”
Savelev is a sociologist at the Levada Center, which analyses polling data. “[H]e went on to explain,” Ioffe wrote, “[that] if television weren’t centrally formulated and subject to heavy self-censorship, if newspapers had wider circulation, if the Internet had a deeper penetration, the numbers would probably look very different — which is precisely why all those soft controls exist in the first place.” (State-owned media, of course, are teeming with members of the security establishment.)
Another important reason for Putin’s so-called popularity is the fact that anyone who doesn’t like his regime — Russia’s democrats, for example — are more than welcome to leave. In this respect, Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev has observed, Putin has learned from the mistakes of his Communist forbears, who believed that open borders would have a destabilising effect on their rule. “The emergence of an exit-minded middle class in Russia is at the heart of the regime’s survival capacity,” Krastev said in Washington DC last year. “Voting with one’s feet by leaving Russia because it is undemocratic is not the same as voting to make Russia democratic.” It goes without saying that those voting with their feet — an estimated two million over the past decade — are not being accounted for in the polls.
Anyone who has prophesied an uprising in the wake of Putin’s return next year, or who has suggested that he may go the way of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak were his bank account to ever become public, should keep this in mind. “The Soviet system locked its citizens in,” Krastev told his audience. “Changing the system was the only way to change your life.”
This can perhaps account for the fact that, while the citizens of Belarus took to the streets of Minsk last December after Alexander Lukashenko stole yet another presidential election, the most common reaction in Russia to Medvedev and Putin’s announcement two weeks ago was to tweet or blog that one was pulling up stumps. The opponents of Putinism who choose to stay and fight tend to meet one of three possible fates. They are either banned, like the National Bolshevik Party, whose crime is not its admittedly problematic and unsettling nationalist program but its opposition to Putin and his administration. (The Kremlin-bankrolled Nashi youth movement is problematic and unsettling for all the same reasons but faces no such ban.)
They are co-opted into Kremlin-funded Potemkin parties, to give elections the appearance of pluralism, or else accuse each other of having been thus co-opted, refuse to form coalitions on that basis, and then cancel each other out at the polling booth, where electoral law has been massaged to work against them anyway. Or, like Politkovskaya, they are gunned down for daring to open their mouths. Actually, I lie. They have a fourth option. They can also bite their tongues.
The apologists should have bitten theirs. Throughout his first two terms, Putin’s policies set the stage for the economic crisis his country is now facing. By promising to now return for a third, he is effectively setting it for a period of political stagnation that is likely to last long after he is gone. While we in the West can look forward without consequence to more of Vladimir Putin’s mock heroics, Russians are trying to come to grips with the prospect of another dozen years of his rule. Novoya Gazeta is predicting a “lost decade”. Krastev is predicting something even longer. “It is not ‘after Putin, the deluge’,” he said, “but ‘after Putin, the dry rot’.”
*Matthew Clayfield has worked as a freelance correspondent in the US, Mexico and Cuba. Currently preparing to cover the Russian presidential election in 2012, he is partially financing his project with reader donations and crowdsourced funds. You can contribute here.