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Vladimir Putin and the loneliness of a president

Laurențiu CONSTANTINIU

When Boris Yeltsin appointed him as Premier in August 1999, and later when he became President of the Russian Federation in April 2000, no one imagined that within two terms in office Vladimir Putin will break one popularity record after another.

Hardly heard of before—Who is Mr. Putin? is a headline in Western media, which may well be regarded as a barometer of his popularity in 1999—Vladimir Putin has become, for the vast majority of people and for many politicians, irreplaceable at the helm of Russia.

“An absolute democrat”
In our opinion, the incumbent President has become the prisoner of the system that brought him to the presidency of the Russian state. As he came to power within/with the help of this system which proved unable to provide an alternative to the sitting President (through free elections), Vladimir Putin is up for a rather difficult test: ensuring the smooth transfer of power and finding a successor able to rise to his popularity level. At the same time however, the incumbent President experiences what holders of absolute power usually do. The longer Vladimir Putin stays in office, the better he feels and the more he talks about himself. In official addresses, in meetings with politicians or with the public, Mr. Putin talks about Vladimir Putin’s childhood. Moreover, in the latest G-8 Summit in Heiligendamm Mr. Putin did not hesitate to parallel his sense of democracy to Mahatma Ghandi’s. His statement that he is “an absolute democrat” and that “since Mahatma Ghandi, there has been no one” (qualified to talk about democracy, my note L.C.) baffled many of the journalists there. And, in our opinion, it should give food for thought to his supporters. So what’s happening to Mr. Putin?

Russia’s old and new leaders
Looking back at the last hundred years of Russian history, we can easily find that the country has been rather short of good leaders. As far as the communist era is concerned, the explanation is simple. Social mobility favoured the inflow of large masses from villages into cities. Therefore, as the excellent analyst of Soviet social facts Moshe Lewin argued, the social foundation of the regime was made up of the peasants who joined the party. The city newcomers were not always the best. As they tried to escape collectivisation, hard work was not one of their virtues. Furthermore, they were people with deep-rooted rural outlooks, not yet accustomed to the new facts of urban life. This is why their only means to make a living in the city was to join the communist party. Once party members, their promotion in the social-political hierarchy depended on the goodwill of their superiors, who would never make the mistake of appointing smart and ingenious deputies. As they reached top positions in the social and party hierarchy, after going through countless filters that made sure no independent individual went up, the members of the Political Bureau would elect one of them as lifetime president. Given the nature of the system—particularly after Stalin’s death—these would elect the one whom they thought to be the weakest. This is how people like Khrushchev, Brezhnev or Chernenko became USSR leaders. This is, in a nutshell, the essence of the Soviet bureaucratic mechanism. Only towards the end, when the system crisis had reached a climax, did Politburo members see it necessary to take more vigorous action, and they elected Mikhail Gorbachev as head of state and government, hoping that the new and young secretary general will manage to rescue something. Boris Yeltsin’s election to the presidency of Russia in 1991 was based on a different, much more democratic mechanism. The 1991 presidential elections were, in our opinion, the only truly free and democratic elections in Russia’s recent history. The people who elected Yeltsin wanted standards of living to be increased; they sought as smooth a transition as possible, and wanted the sovereignty of Russia and the state integrity preserved. And with Yeltsin convincingly telling people, during the electoral campaign, that all these were feasible in spite of huge difficulties, the choice was not that hard to make. An analysis of what happened after Yeltsin’s election indicates that it is in 1991 that the foundations were laid for a new social promotion mechanism—the democratic-populist mechanism—which paved the way for politicians like Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The beneficiaries of the new mechanism were those politicians with high popularity and approval rates. We don’t believe Vladimir Zhirinovsky or anyone else in the new Russian political elite couldn’t have had a great bureaucratic career, just as we can’t picture Chernenko (the last but one secretary general of the Russian Communist Party) dancing in the electoral campaign or playing football.
After Yeltsin’s rise to power, the democratic-populist system whose product he was became gradually replaced with the previous, bureaucratic system. The “revolutionary chaos” of the first years after the USSR collapse, when social mobility was substantial, allowing smart people, not contaminated by the bureaucracy virus, to go up the social ladder (from Yegor Gaidar to Aleksander Lebedev or Boris Berezovsky) had come to an end. As of that moment, Yeltsin found it increasingly undesirable to tolerate resourceful people around him.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely
What favoured Mr. Putin’s election? First and foremost, Yeltsin no longer wanted a part in the political arena after his retirement. This is why it was very important for him that the new president could guarantee a peaceful life for him and his family. Secondly, unlike the Politburo members, Yeltsin and the “family” (by which I mean the political cronies around his daughter Tatyana Dyatcenko) were afraid of free elections. This is why they chose an heir who was not only predictable, but also who posed no threat for them and had high popularity potential. 
According to opinion polls, the incumbent President is quite loved by his people. A product of a system which offers no presidential alternatives, Russia’s second president focused on stability and order as the main coordinates of his programme. Which is precisely why he promoted a political-administrative reform whose results are the “vertical of power” and “guided democracy,” and annihilated all the possible power centres which could have challenged him. Many (particularly in the West) accuse him of slowing down Russia’s democratic development. But if we look back and contrast the Russia that Mr. Putin took over to today’s Russia, we think anyone would have done the same.
The only opposition Mr. Putin sees comes from abroad; at home there is no opposition to the President. Under these circumstances, with no one telling him that he is wrong, when all his critics are labelled as “Berezovsky’s people,” smart and normal as the President may be, he stands sound chances of becoming detached from reality. An individual’s normal conduct relies precisely on their self-control, on hearing people with different opinions and taking these opinions into account.
With Mr. Putin we see the same thing happening as with most people who hold absolute power. In the beginning, Stalin liquidated all those he saw as potential competitors. Towards the end of his life, some of his closest collaborators—Molotov, Voroshilov, Mikoian—fell victim to his mistrust and were accused of working with Western secret services. The Khrushchev in the joint leadership years (1953-1957) was nothing like the Khrushchev pounding his fists on the desk in the UN General Assembly meeting or shipping missiles to Cuba. The same difference between the 1964 Brezhnev and the one covered in Lenin Orders and medals, in his late years. Yeltsin in the “Russian White House crisis” (when he called up tanks to shell the Russian Parliament building) is starkly different from the one who conducted orchestras in Germany and “worked for weeks” on documents (because of alleged alcoholism). Mr. Putin’s statement about the similarity between himself and Mahatma Ghandi is, to our mind, the beginning of the same change that affected his forerunners.

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