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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Is Just a Nobody




What should we call acting President Vladimir Putin: a liberal? an imperialist? a dictator? a democrat? Should we be troubled by his KGB past? Shou ld we be troubled we aren't allowed to know about it? These are the questions on everyone's lips and for which no one has an answer. Putin has been propelled by a propaganda machine that has made him the most visible man in Russia, but paradoxically he remains shrouded in mystery.


Earlier this month, though, that propaganda machine began to falter a bit. Putin had been rocketed from obscurity into the limelight with the help of Boris Berezovsky and Anatoly Chubais. They were all united in their Duma election hatred of the anti-Kremlin Yury Luzhkov and Yevgeny Primakov. Putin and the Kremlin prevailed. But there is grumbling now in the winners circle over questions of who will be running things from now on - the liberals or the oligarchs? This leads to even stickier questions of terminology - namely, is there any difference?


The Western press has picked up on this argument. The oligarchs are represented by Berezovsky and the liberals by Chubais. But Chubais is the boss of UES, Russia's electricity monopoly as well as a dozen other financial empires: Doesn't that make him an oligarch? And how about Berezovsky? Wouldn't he count as a liberal, at least as liberal as Chubais? After all, they both think cutting off gas and electricity to Chechnya and carpet bombing the place are compatible with respecting human rights.


This is liberalism Russian style. Chubais and Berezovsky are liberals and oligarchs in equal measure. But the liberal capitalism they created has exhausted itself and the country. The only way to bring any sort of order to Russia's ruins is to expropriate a group of oligarchs - in this case liberals.


The system these liberals are dealing with, however, is chaos. Power goes to whoever can grab it first and property issues are decided by political campaigns and bureaucratic shuffles.


Methods of government and the ideological cover it operates under have to be changed. For the Kremlin, however, change is anathema. What can it do to assure that the current structure survives? It can take control of the changes itself, it can usurp them, it can call them transformations - and as a result totally avert them.


These "transformations" are put into effect by creating distractions to Russia's real problems - which remain ignored and unsolved - by inventing newer problems that are solved every day on the nightly news. The war in Chechnya is the best example of this. Then, the government changes its image and its rhetoric and simply continues to do what it always has: It just calls these activities by a different name. Policies that are destroying the state are described as issues of "sovereignty;" embezzlers of the state treasury are protected from prosecution in the name of "order;" the old structure is preserved as the bosses speak of "renovation."


These shifts in meaning and image have been accompanied by enthusiastic praises for Putin, whose Fifth Avenue power-ties give the decimation of Chechen civilians - or terrorists if you like - more authority. This urbane flare of his has drawn an entourage of butt-kissers from an intelligentsia that previously wouldn't have touched him with a 10-foot-pole. But when the choice is between principles and job security, the courtiers know how to bet.


So the government commends itself with a lexicon of clich?s for working hard to solve the problems it invented for itself to solve, and its ideology becomes a series of banalities.


Such banality is ideal for a leader as featureless as Putin. Despite the whispers about his days as a spy and what not, he is really just a nobody from nowhere who was hand-picked to lead the country no place. He energetically performs meaningless work, reshuffles his staff, holds meetings, gives instructions, stands between fighting oligarchs, and consults generals on the newest failures. Everything else is handled by PR and propaganda. The emptier he is, the broader the brush strokes of image makers - and of Chubais and Berezovsky - can be. Backstage, though, you can see the puppeteers squabbling over who gets to pull the strings.


The Kremlin gangs only have to hold it together until Putin is officially elected on March 26. With the opposition working so hard to avoid being elected, it's impossible to see that Putin will lose. Paradoxically, it is just about now people are starting to feel a little exasperated by being duped.


But for all that's invested in Putin, there is no guarantee he'll serve out his term as president. Attempts to jettison Yeltsin began only two weeks after he was re-elected. But Yeltsin's political reflexes had been honed by his unique double Soviet-anti-Soviet education, and he survived. Putin has no time for these lessons.


Russia is headed for a crisis at election time, and this is likely the reason Yeltsin was hurried out of office on New Year's Eve. We will likely see falling oil prices, a weaker ruble and new power struggles rocking the Kremlin. And let's not forget the war. It's unthinkable that such a mess would drive Putin into voluntary resignation. But what if disgruntled miners were joined by the army and the Kremlin Guard in their call for Putin's head?


When it becomes clear that successful reform from the top is - yet again - impossible, then the state will begin to crack from below. This is because a state that cannot transform and adapt - and faking it doesn't count - will collapse. Given Russia's circumstances, a revolution is far from the worst alternative.


Boris Kagarlitsky is a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Comparative Politics. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.