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

By Aslund, Anders | Demokratizatsiya, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

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


Aslund, Anders, Demokratizatsiya


Abstract: An analysis of Russian President Vladimir Putin's policy shows that he has a strong habit of doing the opposite of what he says. He has persistently advocated pure democracy, while actually building an authoritarian rule. Fortunately, this authoritarianism is more reminiscent of tsarism than Soviet dictatorship. Russia's impressive economic growth arises out of the construction of a normal market economy based on private enterprise in the 1990s and its cleansing of the market economy through the financial crash of 1998, while Putin's contribution is limited and mixed. In foreign policy, Putin has cleverly displayed power but minimized risks. His personalized authoritarian system gives him little choice but to retain power, although we cannot know by what means.

Keywords: authoritarianism, democracy, economic policy, foreign policy, politics, Russia

Introduction

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. …

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