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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

PARTY LINES: Putin Is Russia's Thermidor




Western analysts and journalists have been trying hard to figure out exactly who Vladimir Putin is. The various probes into his St. Petersburg days and subsequent rise through Moscow's power institutions have all yielded important clues, but no definitive answer.


There may be a better way to get at this question - what might be called a functional approach. Obshchaya Gazeta's Dmitry Furman took a stab at such an approach this week. Rather than looking at Putin the individual, he asked, essentially, why Russia's ruling elite picked Putin as Boris Yeltsin's successor. Put another way, what tasks was Putin picked to carry out?


One task, according to Furman, is to "achieve a general agreement on the results of privatization." Recall that Putin, after Yeltsin anointed him as the heir apparent last year, promised that Russia's privatization process - perhaps the largest fencing operation in history - would not be revisited. This, of course, made him the New Russian elite's only real choice, given Yury Luzhkov's threats to overturn privatizations that were not carried out legally (all of them would undoubtedly qualify) and Yevgeny Primakov's hounding of individual oligarchs. This explains why mortal enemies like Anatoly Chubais and Boris Berezovsky both lined up behind the crown prince.


A second, related task is to provide a more predictable, and safer, way to resolve the frequent disputes between the members of the elite - to restrain their "predatory instincts," as Furman puts it. What is required is not a law-based state but a "strong" one, in which rival big-shots can appeal to the president's office rather than to contract killers. Many would see this as an improvement over Yeltsin's method of rule, which was based not on bashing heads together, but playing enemies off one another. Putin is someone who can bash heads together, if need be. Who better for the role of boss of bosses than the former head of state security?


A third task is to complete the transformation of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, or KPRF, from an opposition party into a constituent part of the new ruling system. While this metamorphosis was taking place even during Yeltsin's tenure (just recall how key KPRF initiatives in the State Duma tended, conveniently, to fail by a few votes), it was a difficult thingto admit, given that the two sides had made their careers on demonizing one another. Putin, however, is not burdened with that problem. Hence the increasing coziness between his political instrument, Unity, and the KPRF in the Duma.


In addition, I'm willing to bet that Putin's economic program, when it's unveiled, will not differ significantly from the KPRF's. One reason for this is suggested in Furman's article. He notes that while the New Russian business elite embraced the language of the market during its period of "primary accumulation," its members did not, strictly speaking, make their fortunes by building better mousetraps. They are not really interested in genuine competition, and this explains their sudden interest in "strengthening the economic role of the state" and "supporting strategically important enterprises."


At the same time, Furman writes, "National cohesion requires an enemy, a switching of the people's attention from social to external problems." This may explain the war in Chechnya, but it doesn't, in and of itself, explain the government's increasingly anti-Western orientation. One reason, in Furman's view, is that the new elite stole the nation's wealth under pro-Western slogans - democracy, capitalism, etc. - and is now trying to co-opt the masses's natural anti-Western reaction in order to deflect attention away from its involvement in the heist.


A second reason for the new elite's anti-Western direction, he argues, is the West's increasing tendency to try to enforce laws and punish wrongdoers across borders. Russia's leaders cannot be happy with the precedents set by the UN war crimes findings on Yugoslavia and the case of Chilean General Augusto Pinochet - not to mention the recent Swiss arrest warrant for Pavel Borodin, the former Kremlin property manager.


Whatever the reasons, the Putin government's anti-Western drift is clear, and the case of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky is but one manifestation of it.


In the end, Putin represents a Russian Thermidor - an attempt to freeze the status quo by whatever means necessary. The only question is: What do the new elite's top power brokers have on him to ensure that he sticks to the script?