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  1. Politics
14 February 2000

Russia’s implausible dictator

Vladimir Putin is the first Russian leader in a generation who is closer to his own people than to t

By John Lloyd

As Vladimir Putin comes into the Russian presidency – for who can now stop him? – he is experiencing astonishing luck. First, the Russian army has chased the Chechen fighters out of Grozny – fighters who had defied Russian forces in the first Chechen war (1994-96), and won, and who were reckoned by many to be winning again. Second, he has signed an agreement with neighbouring Belarus – set up under the Yeltsin presidency – for a federation that could be represented as the first bricks in the rebuilding of the Soviet Union.

Third, the Russian economy is growing for the first time since Mikhail Gorbachev started reforming – by something up to three per cent. This is explained partly by the rise in the oil price, but also partly by a spurt of indigenous production, prompted by the forced devaluation of the rouble 18 months ago. Russian goods – especially foodstuffs – are in the shops, well-packaged and often of good quality. Moskvich and Lada have new models, which if not the latest in technological refinement are half the price of a new foreign mass market car. In one of many “taxi driver” conversations – richer in Russia because anyone can give you a ride, and so you may find yourself talking to a professor, a plumber or a soldier – I heard (from a manager) as much praise for the new freedom and availability of goods as I heard curses for the destruction of the industry and society of his home town, 40kms outside Moscow.

Each of these pieces of good fortune is largely domestic: they were made in Russia. In each case, too, the west has disapproved. It gave vocal opposition to the Chechen war (though, as the head of the domestic security service said in a recent interview, “we understand from the tone that it is not serious”), arguing for Ulster-style negotiation and international mediation. It tacitly opposed devaluation, advising an out-and-out war on inflation with a relatively strong currency. It tacitly opposed federation with Belarus, insisting that the 15 states of the former Soviet Union, now all independent sovereign countries, should remain so and that any effort to draw them together again on Russia’s part would play into the hands of the nationalists and imperialists. In each of these areas, Putin has ignored western opinion.

As a US diplomat and political adviser – a long-time Russia hand in Moscow with Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State – suggested to me over breakfast the other day, Putin’s sudden popularity lies in his capacity to intuit what Russians most want and to make them feel as if they are their own people again. Boris Yeltsin, and his rival and victim Mikhail Gorbachev, were both Soviet men who fell in love with their ideas of the west. Gorbachev increasingly saw it as a repository of civil and democratic wisdom, to which Russia had to have access. Yeltsin saw it as a material cornucopia, from which Russia had been self-exiled. Both grew closer to their western interlocutors – Thatcher, Bush and Kohl in the case of Gorbachev, Kohl and Clinton in the case of Yeltsin – than to their own senior colleagues (though in his last few years in power, Yeltsin drew back into a little “family” circle). In doing so, they lost touch with their own country: a constant temptation for Russia’s ruling class through the centuries.

Putin, for the moment, expresses Russia’s nature. He is a statist. So are the Russians, the more so when they have just lived through a sudden and terrible weakening of the state. He has been for most of his adult life in the KGB: yet what conjures up the gulag to many of us (if less than the initials SS conjure up the concentration camp) is for many Russians a present comfort. KGB members were an elite, successfully promoted in the post-Stalin years as protectors of the fatherland rather than terrorists of the population. Now, the memory of a time in which the KGB was a backbone of order is precious.

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But Putin is also intelligent and worldly enough to command a foreign language, and he is neither in awe of the West nor over- neuralgic about it. Born in the fifties, he has no memory of Stalin; unlike both Gorbachev and Yeltsin, his family – a proletarian one – had no repression visited on them. He matured and worked in the late communist era, when adherence to communism’s formal beliefs was mandatory but real belief in its ideals almost bad form. As a KGB officer working abroad, taking frequent trips to West Germany, he could see clearly the superiority of the west as an economic system; indeed, it was from the ranks of the KGB that the impulses for both the Andropov and Gorbachev modernisation plans came. He is, as a score of people have told me these past two weeks, “a modern man” – by which they mean that though he is more at ease in the world, he is also more at ease at the top of modern Russia.

Both Gorbachev and Yeltsin came to think that democracy and capitalism were a cross between a system of civic virtue and a source of effortless wealth. Putin does not believe they are necessarily either. He sees western attributes and institutions with a measured pragmatism: if democracy and the market work, consonant with rebuilding the state and some of its influence, then fine. Since he spent much of his life spying on a democratic market economy which rebuilt itself to be the most powerful state in Europe, he is predisposed to believe in the efficacy of the western model; but only if it can be tailored to Russian conditions, can increase the wealth and power of Russia and underpin his own power base. Democracy as a fundamental principle, and capitalism as an irreversible system of conducting economic life, still have very small constituencies in Russia; yet it is not inconceivable that Putin may expand these constituencies, without the belief in either which his predecessors professed to have.

The last two leaders of Russia were leery of using force on anyone. Gorbachev sanctioned force in the Baltics, and in Georgia; but the use of the special forces against demonstrators was little worse in scale than in western states in the sixties. Yeltsin agreed to the first Chechen war – but he had no heart in it, did not support his corrupt and ineffective general staff and pulled out of it as soon as he could, leaving boiling resentment in his military. Putin appears to have done a relatively calm calculus on the use of force: how much is needed to give him victory? In that, he may have been more “humanitarian” than Yeltsin and “his” Chechen war (it was begun under Yeltsin’s largely absent leadership) has a much lower death rate than the first.

Gorbachev and Yeltsin thought they were in a new liberal and peaceful era, and tried to act accordingly. Putin knows his country is still in a kind of war, and thus reckons, as leaders do in a war, even on the “good” side, such questions as: How many of theirs do we kill for how many of ours preserved? What advantages do we gain? Since the summit of political power reasoned in this fashion, the generals have felt able to pursue the war more successfully.

Thus we do not need to fear Putin – certainly not yet. He knows that Russia is not a great state, even as he dedicates himself to telling his countrymen that it is. He knows how little he can spend on the military, even as he promises them rewards for Chechnya. He knows how backward Russia is: he devoted his New Year’s address to a speech on Russia’s excision from globalisation which would have not been out of place in a London School of Economics lecture. Reading it, I found myself thinking that Putin could probably understand and even get something from a discussion of the Third Way – even if he is in no shape to march along it.

Putin is also a dark man, as well as an aficionado of masks. The KGB was a particular kind of finishing school, cynical to the highest possible degree in its estimation of situation and of character. If Putin makes a calculus of death and power in Chechnya, he may do a similar exercise of repression and power in Russia. Some Russians, and foreigners living in Russia, talk of an edge of fear now, which was never there under Yeltsin. The appointments to the state TV and the regime-friendly papers show master manipulators moving in. The success of mobilising a popular mood against an enemy (more or less) within may prove too tempting to leave alone.

But if Putin has little affection for democracy, he doesn’t have much predisposition for harsh authoritarianism either. As a good KGB man, his analysis of society would lead him to conclude that Russia no longer has the reflexes of a country waiting for the knout. He loves neither the west nor his own liberals; but he would be a strange intelligence officer if he failed to see that, under the near-anarchy of Yeltsin, the country became ungovernable by anything approaching the system which raised and trained him. He is no more pleasant than Jorg Haider – and, unlike Haider, his KGB position put him a in direct, rather than a rhetorical, line of descent from a horror. But, like Haider, he is an implausible dictator.