The Unexpected Rise of Putin
I wanted to start a brief (4–6 posts) about Russian politics for people who are interested as I believe that our focus on Russia and the developments in Ukraine, Georgia, and elsewhere are among the most important international developments of the century thus far. Make no mistake, Putin is one of the greatest threats to democracy today. Let’s not turn a blind eye.
Here is my first post about “The Unexpected Rise of Putin.” I have written more about Putin in the past and I briefly mention him and why Russia should be among our “global priorities” in my book. Now, unto the post.
The Fall of the Soviet Union
After the economic stagnation of the Brezhnev era in the Soviet Union, and the unsuccessful foreign relation policies of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, the subsequent leaders of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev aimed to improve the economic standings of the USSR.
Gorbachev proposed a number of policies to pursue this goal among which were ‘Perestroika’ (“Restructuring”), ‘Glasnost’ (“Openness”), and ‘Demokratizatsiya’ (“Democratization”).
These policies were largely meant to decentralize the government’s role in local elections. However, Gorbachev’s plan to reform the USSR led to an increase in press criticism of the communist party’s regime. Many were finding that capitalist quarters were enjoying greater economic and social freedoms than their communist and socialist counterparts. Among the most troubling moments of Gorbachev’s regime came when the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl exploded in 1986. Gorbachev later speculated that this moment was the tipping point of collapse for the USSR.
After the public criticism of the attempt to keep the catastrophic disaster at Chernobyl a secret, Gorbachev allowed for free elections in the Warsaw Pact (1989) due to increasing dissent among satellite states. Poland’s Solidarity Party formed a new coalition. Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and other Eastern-European states soon followed. Finally, in 1991, after Boris Yeltsin publicly denounced Gorbachev’s leadership, Russia held its first public presidential election where Yeltsin won. On the 21st of December 1991, the Alma-Ata Protocol was signed and the USSR was officially dissolved.
Gorbachev later speculated that this moment was the tipping point of collapse for the USSR.
Political Order & Boris Yeltsin
Boris Yeltsin promised a new beginning for Russia under the new formation of the Russian Federation. Yeltsin expressed support for free speech and a free market economy which had proven economically useful to neighboring Western nations. Notably, a number of problems arose during Yeltsin’s regime. For one, inflation caused economic turmoil and fertile ground for the emergence of numerous mafia groups funded by the many oligarchs benefiting from the adoption of the free market.
Even after Yeltsin’s health conditions made it difficult to proceed in efficiently managing the country, oligarchs, such as Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gruzinsky, made sure to reinstate Yeltsin’s position at all costs due to self-interest.
Along with the oligarchs, Yeltsin appointed a number of Prime Ministers to help uphold his position in power. The last of which, Vladimir Putin, the former KGB spy in Berlin and later the advisor of international affairs to the Mayor of then Leningrad, Anatoly Sobchak, was appointed PM in 1999.
Political Order & Vladimir Putin
The primary reason Russia found it difficult to establish a strong political order in the late and post-Soviet era was the deep-seated structure of corruption within the Kremlin. As was mentioned above, Gorbachev attempted to democratize the Russian Federation and decentralize power which likely helped quicken separatism in Eastern Europe which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
With the relative freedom of expression in the media, Russians were finally shown the standard of life that many were enjoying in neighboring nations; meanwhile, many Russians in rural areas could not afford basic food and clothing.
After the collapse of the USSR, free markets and tax-exempt oligarchs helped create some of the richest men in the world. Once again, the public was not informed on what Yeltsin was allowing to happen and his increasing alcohol addiction made him unfit to challenge the evident corruption.
However, it was increasingly evident that the mafia was embezzled with the Kremlin even for citizens as they were frequently the victims of their crimes. Russia needed a new “strong man” as they did when Joseph Stalin was appointed leader in 1928. Putin clearly saw that punishing these oligarchs would help his image and gain favor from the public. Yeltsin was seen as a weak leader, limited by his ability to be manipulated; Putin was the juxtaposition. Indeed, many of Russia’s oligarchs were sent to jail for tax fraud or fled to exile after Putin’s election.
The already mentioned oligarch Berezovsky was one of the less fortunate who did not find favor in Putin’s eyes and was later found dead in Oxfordshire as were other critics of Putin’s kleptocracy, including the journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the former Russian spy and defector, Alexander Litvinenko. In order to create an image of a “strong man,” Putin had to punish dissenting politicians, journalists, campaigners, defectors, investigators, and critics.
Many critics of Putin were gunned down on bridges, poisoned in public parks, hit by cars in the streets, or blown up. The evidence for Putin’s connection to these crimes is incontrovertible which is one of the reasons why many Western nations were forced to issue sanctions on Russia. For Putin, critics are an enemy to the image he wants to upkeep as a strong man. Hence, he will fight them despite the economic sanctions which are easier to blame on the West.
In the early 2000s, Putin created a name for himself by hiring biographers to retell the story of his upbringing and later career in the KGB. One of Putin’s main strengths is the force of his propaganda. Thus, hiring biographers was instrumental in telling the public who he was. In 1999, Putin managed to take advantage of the Russian apartment bombings in Moscow which have since then been confirmed to be planted by the Federal Security Service, also known as the FSB.
Putin portrayed himself as a hero to the Russian people and promised revenge after the attacks. His adamance toward Russia’s fight against terrorism is also one of the reasons why the United States and Russia were able to collaborate after the 9/11 attack on American soil. The intuitive assumptions about Putin from Bush and their shared hatred of terrorism helped Putin’s image as the man that can put Russia back on the world stage after the humiliating defeat of the USSR.
Putin’s response to terrorism is not the only way Putin enforces his image as the next Russian “strong man.” Activities caught on video similarly portray him as a skillful and strong leader from being a black belt in Judo to being able to score in ice hockey against Russian stars and finding historical monuments while scuba-diving. Putin’s propaganda machine, Russia Today, and other media outlets are largely successful and thus help reinforce a nationalistic agenda that keeps Putin popular and in power.
For Putin, critics are an enemy to the image he wants to upkeep as a “strong man.”
Putin is not infallible, however. Recent developments in Belarus have undermined Putin’s image as the “master tactician” the world stage has known him as, writes Anton Troianovski. Similarly, the recent outbreak of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan have put Putin’s image as the leader who restored Russia’s “great-power status” after the collapse of the USSR into doubt.
Despite these moments of failure, Putin is aiming to provide “stability” to Russia by appointing himself as the President of Russia until 2036, which would make him 83 by the time his tenure would end. The portrayal of Putin is his most important asset and he will use it to keep stealing from the Russian people; his presidency is far from over.
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