Magazine article Russian Life

The Shape of Putin's Russia

Magazine article Russian Life

The Shape of Putin's Russia

Article excerpt

The political roadside is littered with failed predictions and ill-advised prognoses. As it turns out, Berezovsky became the outsider and Vladimir Putin holds the Kremlin reigns firmly in his hands. On the occasion of the Russian president's 50th birthday, Russian Life decided to look back at the events and decisions that have shaped the first three years of Putin's rule.


Boris Yeltsin, who was managing the country largely from his private suite in the Central Clinic Hospital or from his dacha, began to search for a political heir. Only a very narrow, inner circle knew that the power-hungry "Tsar Boris" (as his entourage called him behind his back) felt that, because of his frail health, he was ready to retire. The circle included his beloved daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, Valentin Yumashev and the head of Kremlin administration, Alexander Voloshin. Yeltsin charged this troika with headhunting for the most suitable candidates.

At that time, Russia was only beginning to emerge from the painful economic crisis that followed the August 1998 crash. The oligarchs were gorging themselves on the state budget, imposing their will on the Kremlin. Regional barons were lobbying for their parochial interests in the Federation Council, and the communist majority at the State Duma was stymieing every reform-oriented law, while condemning the "pernicious" political and economic course of the country's leadership. Chechnya had devolved into a sanctuary for bandits and a launching pad for rebels to make armed incursions into Russia's southern regions. In short, it was not a happy time.

Russia clearly longed for a strong ruler and was hungry for order. Yet it was also important for Yeltsin's troika to make sure the would-be successor would stay the course of liberal reform and, perhaps more importantly, provide guarantees for Yeltsin's "cloudless pension.

Then, as happened so often in the eight years of card games in the Yeltsin Kremlin, in August 1999 the deck was shuffled. Prime Minister Stepashin was out and Vladimir Putin, the low-profile director of the Federal Security Service (FSB, successor to the KGB's foreign arm), was promoted to his position. It was a not insignificant move, for under the Russian constitution, the Prime Minister is de facto Vice President, stepping in as Acting President when the elected president leaves office because of incapacitation, impeachment or resignation. And step in is exactly what Putin did when, on December 31, 1999, Boris Yeltsin tendered his resignation as president.

Unlikely Heir

While today it is difficult to imagine anyone else sitting in the Kremlin, in 1999, no western think tank could fathom that someone like Putin--a political outsider, a KGB officer, a technocrat--could ascend to the presidency. Even Russian politicians were at a loss when, in 1999, a foreign journalist at the annual Davos (Switzerland) economic forum posed the now-famous question about the then prime minister: "Who is Mr. Putin?"

What little the West knew about Putin only urged caution. His lack of openness (understandable, given his background as an intelligence officer) could signal unpredictability. An absence of political expertise could draw the country into the vortex of an even greater chaos. Or, looking back on the case of Yuri Andropov, the only other intelligence officer to step into the Kremlin's top role, Putin's advent to power could signal an end to the Great Thaw of the 1990s and the inauguration of a New Cold War. Equally worrisome was the fact that it was the much-vaunted "Family" (Yeltsin's inner circle) that was pushing Putin up Russia's political Olympus: what if he proved to be a docile puppet in the hands of Kremlin puppeteers?

Yet the 47-year-old Putin began disappointing conventional wisdom from his first days in office. In contrast to the puffy, ailing Yeltsin, Putin was energetic, athletic and intensely pragmatic. …

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