Two simplified pictures of Putin's Russia, both wrong.

Author:Shlapentokh, Vladimir
Position:Vladimir Putin

As we all know, stereotypical images tend universally to dominate mainstream political discourse. The world recently glimpsed opposing images of America conjured by Republicans and Democrats. Both viewpoints, however, converged in supporting the major tenets of American democracy. This is not the case today in President Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Indeed, analysts who belong to the same Russian mainstream--even close friends and colleagues--offer diametrically opposed images of their country. One viewpoint is pessimistic, as propagated in a few liberal periodicals such as Novaia Gazeta and Moskovskie Novosti and the radio station Ekho Moskvy. It can also be found in some less ideologically driven newspapers, such as Moskovskii Komsomolets, and even the solidly neutral Izvestia. The opposing viewpoint is "realistic," even positive, and it emphasizes the stability of Putin's regime. The "realistic" view of the developments in Russia has been advanced by the country's main television channels, as well as by such newspapers and weeklies as Komsomolskaia Pravda, Argumenty I Fakty, and Trud.

To convey the highly charged differences between these major viewpoints, let us resort to an impressionistic comparison: take as a point of reference the ideological distance between the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. In the Russian context, the ideological distance that separates Novaia Gazeta and Trud, or Channel One and Ekho Moskvy is probably 10 to 30 times greater than between these two publications. The closest American analogue is probably the chasm between a Trotskyist pamphlet circulated in Detroit and the Detroit News.

Russian writers of the pessimistic persuasion assume the universality of democracy and the market economy, and assess Russian developments using democratic standards. Russian writers in the second, "realist" camp see their country from a perspective that may be described as a version of the Eurasian ideology. This ideology assumes Russia has a unique role in history, determined by its size, its geographic identity spanning Europe and Asia, its ties to the Muslim world, its historical traditions, and even by its climate, an argument that became popular in Russia after the publication in 2000 of the popular Russian author Dmitry Parshin's book, Why Russia Is Not America. (1) "Realists" insist Russia has a unique place in history and should have its own specific political and economic order. They believe Russians are not only unable but unwilling to adopt the Western mode of life. By all accounts, the "realists" express the views of President Putin and his inner circle.

The Pessimists

The pessimists paint an extremely gloomy picture. Grigorii Yavlinskii, the leader of the liberal party Yabloko, regards his country as geared toward "the destruction of all state institutions," and believes Russia is facing a new economic crisis. Gary Kasparov, the world chess champion, who is now the chairman of "Committee 2008," a sort of central headquarters for bold Russian liberals, said in December that "if events develop at the same speed as they did in the last eight months, in 2005 the political power in Russia will collapse as a result of internal processes, without any effort from outside." (2) Another liberal leader, the former head of the oil giant Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky (even pro Putin media recognize him as "a serious political figure" (3)) delivered a New Year's message from prison in his article, "Prison and the World: Property and Freedom," which foresees a horrendous future for Russia if current trends persist. "The all-devouring bureaucracy will be confronted by savage crowds that invade the streets and destroy the fabric of society, demanding 'bread and entertainment.'" (4) Liberal Russian analysts who are not directly engaged in the political struggle repeated the gloomy prognoses of these activists. Yurii Levada, a prominent Russian liberal and the head of a leading polling firm, declared that "the structures created in the last five years are in crisis," and the authorities are "helpless" and "confused." (5) His diagnosis was seconded by another leading liberal, the editor of Moskovskie Novosti Evgenii Kisilev, who says, "The system does not work." (6)

"The general political climate among the Russian elites has become immensely depressing in recent times," according to the prominent Moscow journalist Mikhail Rostovskii. He insists that the authorities, who have "only instincts but no strategies," are involved in ludicrous endeavors, such as the cancellation of the holiday celebrating the October (Bolshevik) Revolution, meaningless or dangerous undertakings, such as the decision to abandon the election of provincial governors, or even stupid actions, such as the destruction of Yukos. (7) The authors of a report produced by Stanislav Belkovsky's Council on National Strategy accuses the state of "lacking a strategy and goals." The report focuses on the Kremlin's chaotic economic policy. (8) Even Expert, a pro-business weekly, which is usually friendly toward the Kremlin, declared on the eve of the new year in an editorial with the sarcastic title, "We Do Not Rebel against the Authorities," that the current persecution of one company after another (for instance, the mobile telephone firm Vympelkom and the bank Russian Standards) "puts in doubt the survival of the country." (9)

Liberal authors vie with each other in their use of grim terms to describe Putin's Russia: "a frozen country," "the ice period," "theater of the absurd," "the civilization decline," "a country sinking in the swamp," "a self-destructive political power." (10)

The liberals deplore almost every aspect of Russian life and condemn the domestic and foreign policies of the Kremlin. They point to the slackening of economic growth, suggesting that the country has made no move toward modernization and has entered a period of "liberal stagnation," an allusion to "Brezhnev's stagnation" in the second half of the 1970s. (11) They point to the miserable state of science, education, and culture and talk about Putin's "alienation from all active people in the country and the elites in general." (12) Boris Nemtsov, a well-known Russian liberal, and the prominent political scientist Lilia Shevtsova mocked Putin's administrative innovations, particularly his centralization policy. They predict the disintegration of Russia as a result of these innovations. In their view, Putin's system of "vertical power," based on the Kremlin's direct control over the governors and the presidents in the national republics, is rotten and will collapse at the first serious test, as was the case with former president Leonid Kuchma in Ukraine. (13)

The liberals speak of the Kremlin's total failure in Chechnya, particularly in connection with the tragic terrorist siege of a school in Beslan, and its general inability to guarantee security. (They do, however, support Putin's aggressive stance toward international terrorism.)

With a special fervor, the pessimists used the developments in Ukraine and the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia--where Moscow, despite its seemingly total control, could not get its candidate elected--to prove their thesis that the regime's fate is already "written on the wall." While supporting Ukraine's sovereignty, which sets them apart from a great majority of Russians, they mock the Kremlin's failure to install its political candidates. They were particularly harsh in regard to Putin's awkward intervention in the recent presidential election in Ukraine. (14) Critics faulted Moscow's overt intervention in the campaign, seemingly based on the incorrect assumption that Ukrainians could be as easily manipulated by money and "administrative resources" as Russians. For the liberals, "the orange revolution" is a real people's movement for democracy, directed against corruption. To the prominent liberal deputy Vladimir Ryzkov, (15) Moscow was evidently foolish to assume the Kremlin's candidate would win and thus jeopardize relations with the opposition victor. (16)

Politicians and journalists with access to liberal newspapers castigate everybody in Putin's government. The pollster Yurii Levada describes the government as a collective of "helpless people" who can only "change offices." (17) The investigative journalist Alexander Minkin derogates Putin's retinue regularly in his serial, "Letters to the President." Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov, the head of the Federal Security Service, Nikolai Patrushov, the speaker of the Duma, Boris Gryzlov, and the economics minister German Gref have all been criticized for their alleged incompetence. (18) Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov has provoked contempt. (19) Liberal critics do not spare even Putin himself. They worry not only about his KGB past, but also about his interest in siphoning money (or, more elegantly, "financial streams"). They have even suggested--as one journalist did at a seminar abroad in October 2004--that "the maximization of his control over money" is Putin's main motivation. Stanislav Belkovsky, an analyst with liberal ties, alluded to the Kremlin as a mafia, in which "the authorities today are concerned first of all with the accumulation of financial streams in their own accounts." (20) Yulia Latynina, a prominent economic analyst, discussing the recent and suspicious auctioning of the oil company Yugaskneftegaz, a subsidiary of Yukos, could not help but allude darkly to the president's participation and his use of KGB techniques. Victor Gerashchenko, a highly respected banker and current chairman of the board at Yukos, echoed the same thought. (21) Gary Kasparov was even blunter. In a Russian newspaper, he characterized people in the Kremlin...

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