Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Putin's Lurch toward Tsarism and Neoimperialism: Why the United States Should Care

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Putin's Lurch toward Tsarism and Neoimperialism: Why the United States Should Care

Article excerpt


The permanent question during Putin's first term was "Who is Mr. Putin?" As a trained KGB agent, he was all things to all people. He appealed to Russian nationalists and the Orthodox Church, but he also saw and nurtured Western leaders. Unlike Yeltsin, Putin did not antagonize the communists, but he also appealed to economic liberals with more market reforms.1 His open-to-all attitude did not seem convincing. It looked like a waiting game. Everybody wondered what Putin would do when he had consolidated power.

Systematic Establishment of Political Authoritarianism

Only in one regard was Putin completely clear: he was a political authoritarian, but he did not say so. He muzzled the media, starting with television and proceeding with one newspaper after the other. He had brought the State Duma under control, partly through democratic means, partly through gross corruption. The regional governors were brought to heel by all means.2 Putin's loyalty to the KGB and its predecessors was unwavering, demonstrative, and frightening.

The clearest indication of Putin's direction was his appointments. They all came from a very narrow stratum of former colleagues in St. Petersburg, mainly from the KGB. (KGB people are called siloviki in Russian? which means people belonging to the power ministries-the KGB, the military, and the police.) Putin's associates were both from the FSB and the foreign intelligence service (SVR), but the FSB people dominated.3

The fundamental question is: What kind of Russia has Putin created? Before the presidential elections in March 2004, as in 2000, Putin thrived on the postrevolutionary contempt for politics and refused to debate any competitor, but he actually made a public policy declaration on television. He surprised with a Jeffersonian declaration of freedom:

We must continue work to create a genuinely functioning civil society in our country. I especially want to say that creating a civil society is impossible without genuinely free and responsible media. . . .

I firmly believe that only a developed civil society can truly protect democratic freedoms and guarantee the rights and freedoms of the citizen and the individual. Ultimately, only free people can ensure a growing economy and a prosperous state. . . .

I would like to stress once more that the rights and freedoms of our people are the highest value that defines the sense and content of the state's work.

Finally, we will most certainly complete the transformations currently underway in the judicial system and the law enforcement agencies. I think this is a truly important area that is decisive for building up real democracy in the country and ensuring the constitutional rights and guarantees of our citizens.4

Putin did none of this. As usual, when he said something, he was preparing to do the opposite. He is known for two political concepts. The first is "managed democracy" and the second is the later "sovereign democracy." In 2002, Putin denied ever having used the expression "managed democracy," and a careful search suggests that he might be correct. Similarly, a search suggests that he has never used the words "sovereign democracy" in public.

In his annual address in 2007, Putin attempted an answer.5 First, he claimed to "achieve real democratisation of the electoral system. . . . The proportional system gives the opposition greater opportunities to expand its representation in the legislative assemblies. . . . I am certain that the new election rules will not only strengthen the role of political parties in forming the democratic system of power, but will also encourage greater competition between the different parties." Yet, Putin has systematically eliminated democratic electoral competition.

Second, he said, "Decentralisation of state power in Russia is now at a higher point today than at any other time in our country's history." Yet, Russia is far more centralized under Putin than it was under Yeltsin. …

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