by Alex Alexiev
It was perhaps inevitable that Russia’s tortuous post-Communist experiment in democracy would grind to a halt, but it is more than a bit ironic that it would do so not in a spasm of violence but through a rigged ballot box. Regardless, Putin’s elections have put paid to democracy, and authoritarian rule – or worse – is what the country is facing. And judging by the extremes to which Putin went in suppressing the opposition and manipulating public opinion and the electoral process prior to the polls, it is almost certainly going to be worse. It is worth reminding ourselves of the Kremlin’s extreme rhetoric and pre-election shenanigans here, because they are a stark reminder of both Russia’s unhappy past and uncertain future. Also, because they didn’t seem to make much sense in an election whose outcome was never in doubt.
It began with the unusually strident anti-Western and anti-American propaganda campaign unleashed by the Kremlin, complete with lurid tales of CIA plots to overthrow the government that eerily echoed Stalinist times, as did Putin’s angry denunciations of his political opponents as paid agents of Russia’s foreign enemies. In what may be a reflection of the man’s paranoid views, he accused the former Communists and their liberal victims both of having willfully destroyed the great Soviet Union. Last, but perhaps most telling, the election campaign turned into a gigantic exercise of building Putin up as a nearly mythical savior-of-the-nation icon of the type known as “cult of personality” in the Stalinist era.
The Kremlin’s real or imagined enemies were not subjected to propaganda abuse alone. The strident vilification campaign was accompanied by wide-spread intimidation, arbitrary arrests and brutal beatings (as well as electoral mischief), that openly flouted Russian constitutional rights as well as international political and human rights norms to which Russia is a signatory. Unmistakable in all of this was the central role played by the Federal Security Service (FSB) as a full-fledged political police worthy of its KGB progenitor of the totalitarian past.
What then was this all about if the victory of Putin’s puppet party, Unified Russia, was a foregone conclusion long before this curious campaign began?
It had long been speculated that Putin had no intention of relinquishing power and the elections were designed to provide the requisite modicum of constitutional legitimacy to accomplish that. This could be done, for instance, by allowing a caretaker president for a while, or in building and running a Communist party-like hegemonic political machine, or by taking the prime minister’s office and transferring all real political power to it. Any one of these options is still possible and easily feasible after the elections. But the nature of the election campaign and Putin’s personal involvement in it point to a more ambitious, long term agenda.
A clue of what that agenda might be is provided by Putin’s offhand remark back in October that Russia would need a “strong hand” for the next 10 to 15 years. That, and the fact that his clear objective in the campaign was not just to electorally defeat his political opponents, but to delegitimize the opposition as a treasonous conspiracy. This explains why Putin and his FSB goons focused most of their vitriolic propaganda and physical repression on the liberal, democratic opposition – despite the fact that it seemed to pose a negligible electoral challenge. For Putin knew that, unlike the Communists, the Democrats are the only political element in Russia today capable of presenting a coherent political and economic alternative to his rule. So they had to be marginalized and eliminated as a political force by all means necessary.
So what is Putin going to do now that this bogus electoral exercise has given him carte blanche to fulfill his agenda? The first thing to note is that the manner in which he will exercise power formally is of no importance. What is important is that he now controls all executive, judicial and legislative power like no other Russian leader since Stalin. But unlike post-Stalin Soviet leaders, who, though powerful, served and were accountable to the Communist Party, Unified Russia serves Putin and his coterie of security services siloviki (strong men), and not the other way around.
What we’re likely to see, therefore, is the transformation of Russia’s political system into a highly authoritarian one-man dictatorship, albeit with sundry democratic trappings retained for decorative purposes. It will inevitably involve an extensive political machine for control, but also patronage and spoils distribution at all levels, an emasculated civil society and a pervasive political police not only enforcing Putin’s will, but also participating directly in political and economic life.
Examples of what may be in the offing are not difficult to come by already. In 2002, the Kremlin installed, via rigged elections, the active duty FSB general Murat Zyazikov as president of Ingushetiya. Zyazikov promptly proceeded to install a regime of unprecedented (even by Soviet standards) corruption, nepotism and repression. Today the republic’s economy has ground to a halt, unemployment approaches 70% and killings and abductions are an almost daily occurrence with at least 400 individuals having been abducted by the FSB – never to be heard of again. This most hated man in the republic, however, remains a member in good standing of Putin’s siloviki “praetorian guard” and has just delivered all of Ingushetiya’s votes for Unified Russia.
Economically, Putin’s brave new Russia is likely to evolve even further in the direction of state capitalism controlled directly by the Kremlin and assorted sycophants and approved oligarchs.
Chances are that such a system can continue to function well, at least as long as the oil boom lasts. It is indeed Putin’s great luck that he came to power just as oil and gas prices began their spectacular rise after 2000, resulting in huge windfall profits for a country that is still essentially a banana republic with oil and gas. With Russian exports doubling since 2000 and oil prices rising 58% in 2007 alone, Russian export revenues and gold and currency reserves are at an all-time high. And it is these windfall profits that have allowed the gradual improvement of living standards that account for whatever genuine popularity Putin enjoys with the public.
Yet there are dark clouds on the horizon, and Putin’s dictatorial ambitions and anti-market propensities will not help lift them. Russia is still a poor country and despite all the progress, its GDP per capita of $7000 (six times lower than America’s) is only now back up to the level of 1990. Moreover, the oil and gas boom obscures the fact that Russia has little it can sell apart from what it can dig out of the ground. It is still unable to produce high quality steel for modern automobiles, for example, and needs Western engines and avionics to make a marketable airliner.
Dark clouds are now swirling over the oil and gas price jewels as well. Apart from the inherent systemic instability of an economy relying on one commodity, there are signs that Putin’s neo-socialist policies of nationalization and anti-foreign investment bias could soon start negatively affecting the oil and gas industry. The rate of growth of oil production this year has crawled nearly to a stop, and experts predict an imminent and massive decline in gas production and exports due to insufficient investment in the industry.
Thus it may turn out that Putin’s election triumph, while clearing the road to tyranny in the near future, hides in itself the seeds of the inevitable downfall of yet another Russian autocrat.
There are some clear lessons for the West in the drama taking place in Russia. Ever since President Bush looked deep into the soul of Vladimir Putin and liked what he saw, Washington has given him a pass, despite egregiously belligerent and undemocratic behavior. Perhaps it is time for us to take another look, and see the soul of a tyrant for what it is and act accordingly. We owe it to the Russian people and our own ideals.