Books on Russia
Update No: 322 (25/10/07)
Return of the Tsar?
Few believe that Putin is really bowing out for good, if bowing out at all. All
the indications are that he will remain the real power in Russia for a long
It is perhaps not a coincidence that Russians go in for patronymics to identify
each other, Vladimir Vladimorivich for instance. They like a father figure.
Putin is exactly that for them. It complements, and perhaps partly explains, or
is explained by, his extraordinary popularity. As everyone knows, they love a
strong figure. So, one might say do all peoples. But not, for Western nations
too much. The West has evolved by surrounding its rulers with safeguards against
arbitrary use of power.
The West objects to Putin's repressive measures. But the Russians love them.
They despise journalists and politicians, indeed public figures of most sorts,
but not a true master.
He is contemplating resuming a former job of his, the premiership, after he
steps down in March, which could be a launch pad for yet another shot at the
presidency in 2012. If he becomes prime minister again, it is clear that that
will be the vital post. He will remain in charge, as is so widely wanted in
Russia. He has become the touchstone of Russia's new-found self-confidence,
indeed of the Russian nation.
He loves foreign affairs and security matters. These could be seconded to him as
premier temporarily by special decree.
But what will he do with his power?
Alas, he appears bent on translating Russia's oil and gas wealth into a deadly
stockpile of weapons. He has the hoariest old idea of how to win respect and
recognition as a world power. Have the guns.
The Russian military is once again treating NATO as the glavny provitnik, the
primary enemy. It is drawing up plans for a nuclear war. Defence spending has
gone up six-fold to 870bn roubles ($34 bn) since 2001 and new missiles are being
tested all the time. The new variant of the Topol-M missile has multiple
warheads, which splinter so that they cannot be shot out of the sky. The US's
latest anti-missile defences will be useless against them.
It does not occur to Putin, however, that sophisticated nations think in other
terms nowadays. There is no doubt that the US has an unassailable lead in
assault weaponry. It is also widely detested and despised these days, not least
for its dismal president, but also for its crass materialism and abuse of the
common environment. The Japanese, for instance, while dependent on the US for
their security, still rate Switzerland as the best country on the planet. It has
no nuclear weapons (although the best anti-nuclear shelters in the world), it is
highly prosperous and ecological, clean and orderly; and it stands on its own,
outside the EU, yet is the fittest setting anyone can think of for international
organisations, including banks.
Putin likes to think that he is a cut above his predecessors. He rarely mentions
Yeltsin, who created him after all. It would be invidious of him to say
disobliging things about his great sponsor. But silence tells all. He clearly
regards him as a bungler compared to himself and far too much prepared to kow-tow
to the West. The same in spades is what he thinks of Gorbachev. Yet history will
probably rank either of them as a greater man than himself, the twin, if
bitterly opposed, architects of a mighty upheaval in world affairs.
Putin is openly scornful of the communists. It is true that he is nostalgic for
the days of the USSR. But what he liked about the Soviet Union was its power,
not its credo. He is a product of St Petersburg after all, that 'Window on the
He was in charge of foreign investment under Mayor Anatoly Sobchak in the 1990s,
where he became buddies with Silvio Berlusconi, the largest foreign investor in
the city and just the sort of rapscallion he likes, a robber baron to his
fingertips. He has surrounded himself with like-minded robber boyars.
Putin is a patriot and pragmatist, not an ideologue. He wants for Russia
whatever will bring it power. In ancient times he thought that it was communism
that could do the job. He realises now that that was a mistake.
The power in question is not that of dominating other countries, although it
might seem to be, but rather that of standing up to the West. The Kremlin is
only concerned about its neighbours in so far as they are falling into the hands
of above all, the US. The Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, the Orange
Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005
exercised the minds of the Kremlin strategists only in so far as the new
developments brought ardently pro-US leaders to power there, Saakashvili,
Yushchenko and Bakiyev respectively. In Belarus they have an ardent would-be
adjunct to Russia under the leadership of Lukashenka. But they know that the
Belarus regime is anathema to the West and, therefore, have no interest in
annexing the country themselves.
Putin's views on Tsarist and Soviet times were made explicit at a recent press
conference. Some foreign analysts suggest Putin is a
"neo-imperialist". He rejects that totally. In the meeting he took
issue with the pan-Slavism of the 19th century when Moscow expected all Slavs to
come under the Russian umbrella; as well as with the Leninism of the 20th
century. "Lenin said he didn't care about Russia. What was important for
him was achieving a world socialist system. The Russian people didn't expect
this. They were deceived," Putin said. "Russia today has no intention
of repeating the Tsarist experience or what happened in Soviet times ... I hope
no missionary ideas get into state policy. We should be true to ourselves,
respectful of others, and good partners."
An anti-Leninist, Putin is also a firm anti-communist who calls the current
Russian Communist party "a holdover from the past". Asked about the
party's complaints that it gets minimal access to state-controlled television,
Putin sneered: "The communists are always complaining. In Soviet times they
had a monopoly and it didn't help them to get or keep support."
Putin's political philosophy reflects the conventional wisdom of the world's
globalised elite. "We want to encourage the growth of a middle class. It is
the backbone of any society," he said, before launching into a description
of Russians becoming property owners, taking out mortgages, and thinking in
terms of budgets and planning.
The puzzle is why Putin and his colleagues feel the need, given their
popularity, for so much more political control than seems necessary, even in
terms of their desire not to allow serious democratic competition. They keep
parliament weak, and make it hard for new parties to organise or cross the
threshold of the 7% of the national vote required to win any seats. They hog the
airwaves and manipulate TV. They condone the repression and intimidation - and
sometimes the murder - of independent activists.
Grigory Yavlinsky, of the social democratic party Yabloko, calls it bureaucratic
authoritarianism, "in which everything is decided by chance and violence
... everything is conditional". Irina Khakamada, of the Union of Rightwing
Forces, describes it as " an instrumental democracy" in which
democratic institutions in Russia have no intrinsic value but are only designed
to keep a narrow elite in charge. Neither politician expects any early change.
Whoever succeeds Putin will follow the same line.
For outsiders the message is dramatic. Thanks to the independence that he has
given Russia, with its new role as an energy superpower, Putin's team exudes a
confidence that neither Brezhnev, the last traditional Soviet leader, nor his
more democratic successors, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, ever had.
A century of Western ability to influence Russia's internal development is
finally over. That is Putin's main legacy. He has created the foundation for a
political and social system that does not require Western fear or favour to
survive. He is pursuing a foreign policy that is not dominated by what
Washington or indeed Europe expects him to do. Russia is neither competing with
the west nor confronting it - nor, at the other extreme, is it desperately
trying to join the western club. It prefers its relations with the West to be
good rather than bad, but if the West wants a new cold war, Russia will choose
either to ignore it or respond in kind.
The new Cold War?
The present occupant of the White House is oblivious of all this, as he has been
of a lot of other things. He is keen to site anti-missile defences in Poland and
the Czech Republic,
supposedly to keep out North Korean or Iranian missiles, not Russian ones. Tell
that to the gendarmes.
The one thing that matters is that the Bush Administration will be over before
serious construction starts. It is to be hoped that whoever succeeds it will
have a bit more sense and drop the whole affair.
Putin in Tehran
As it so happens Putin was in Tehran in mid-October, where the five members of
the Caspian Sea Cooperation Organisation were in conference, the littoral states
of the inland sea, Russia itself, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Azerbaijan,
all with huge energy reserves were there.
With oil touching $88 per barrel, as the conference opened on October 16th,
there is little doubt what was the main topic of discussion. There are still
contentious issues to settle about demarcation borders and the like. But they
share a desire for amicable resolution of them. The personal relations between
the leaders are excellent. Incidentally, llham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, Nursultan
Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, and Gurbangulay Berdymukhammedov of Turkmenistan, each
with sole control of their countries oil and gas reserves, are high up in any
list of the world's richest men. Putin may not be personally rich but has
infinite power - and reach. He will continue to have all the trappings of power
whatever he decides he will do next. The fifth leader present, Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad of Iran has temporary elective power, which is necessarily finite.
He also has bosses in Iran, the Board of Guardians and beyond them, the Supreme
Ayatollah, so his tenure is the most slender.
It is an interesting fact that these five states have the highest official oil
reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia (269bn barrels), Iraq (now unknown, but
historically well over 100bn), Canada (179bn), a little known fact, Kuwait
(102bn) and UAE (97bn). Russia's official reserves of 60bn are almost certainly
gross-underestimate, BP specialists putting them ahead of the Saudis at 300bn or
more. Its reserves of gas are of course by far the world's largest, over 50
trillion cubic metres.
It may be observed that the US has no special relationship with any of these
Caspian powers except Azerbaijan, whilst eager to develop ties with Kazakhstan
and Turkmenistan. Iran of course is hostile.
But not to Russia. There is still everything to play for in the energy field for