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Issue 6- Commentary

This Issue

Tom Angelakis, a post-graduate student from the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford  presents an analysis of the new Russian President, Vladimir Putin. As relations between Russia and the West appear to be deteriorating in the wake of the Kosovo crisis and the current situation in Chechnya, the position of Putin is central to the future of both Russian and global security.

Vladimir Putin: Policeman-Reformer-President

The Western media has emphasised the "mystery" of Vladimir Putin, Russia's new president.(1) Observers seem to agree that little is known about Putin or what he stands for. This is mainly because the media virtually ignored him until he became Prime Minister in August 1999. On closer analysis, however, he is not such a big mystery.

It is not known why Boris Yeltsin selected Vladimir Putin as Prime Minister and heir apparent last August. Few people know the real explanation and perhaps it is premature to speculate. But it does seem likely that the security services are gaining influence in Moscow. Indeed, the past three prime ministers were previously employed in the security apparatus (Yevgenii Primakov, the Foreign Intelligence Service; Sergei Stepashin, the Ministry of Internal Affairs; and Putin, the KGB and its successor, the Federal Security Service, or FSB). Putin obviously has allies in the security services after being in their employ for much of his adult life, and especially after heading the FSB. He would have had access to files on many officials involved in corruption. It has been suggested that he may have used compromising information from these files to manoeuvre himself into his present position.(2) Besides the security apparatus, he also has the support of Yeltsin's "family" of economic reformers and financial oligarchs.(3)

Putin has stated that he intends to continue with market reforms, though with more centralized direction of the economy. His past experience suggests that these are not empty promises to placate Russian reformers and Western aid givers. As a KGB officer in East Germany from 1975 to 1989, it is likely his responsibilities included organising the theft of Western technology, one of the main functions of the KGB at the time.(4)With the KGB's first-hand knowledge of the West and awareness of the real economic situation in the Soviet Union, the KGB came to the conclusion that the technology gap between East and West had become too wide for theft to narrow. The KGB were among the first to realise that the only way to acquire the needed technology was to make conditions in the Soviet Union conducive to Western investment and technology transfers. Putin, and many young KGB officers like him, supported the centrally controlled Soviet economic reforms under Gorbachev.(5) Indeed, they actually began to prepare the Soviet economy for reforms under General Secretary Yuri Andropov, who once headed the KGB. During the second half of the 1980s, KGB officers were responsible for setting up and monitoring the new banking systems, joint ventures, and spending of foreign currency. They were also responsible for monitoring the reformers to ensure the reforms were carried out within the bounds set by the centre. This put them in a position to know about the massive corruption and theft that was occurring, and even to participate in it. After the fall of the Soviet Union, KGB officers remained at the forefront of the new enterprises because they had the best connections and the most knowledge in dealing with the West.(6)

Putin has more experience in foreign policy, albeit mainly in foreign economic relations, than did Yeltsin when he became President. First there is Putin's KGB experience mentioned above. Second, in 1989, Putin officially left the KGB and went to Leningrad - possibly to monitor the Leningrad reformers - where he worked in the Foreign Affairs Department of Leningrad State University. Almost immediately he became Anatolii Sobchak's (the reformist mayor of Leningrad) international affairs advisor. In 1991 he became chairman of the city's Committee on Foreign Relations. Putin was responsible for establishing a currency exchange and for inviting German banks to the city. He played a key role in administering St. Petersburg well before being appointed First Deputy Mayor in 1994.(7) When Sobchak was defeated at the polls in 1996, Putin resigned. It was at this time that he returned to his security service roots when he took a job in the Kremlin investigating the loss of Economic Relations Ministry assets in countries where its offices had closed. In July 1998 he was appointed director of the KGB's successor, the FSB.

Putin's participation in the reform process over the past 20 years indicates he is committed to maintaining the course of economic reforms, though judging from his statements, experience, and comments from his colleagues, with more centralized control of the economy, as perhaps envisioned by Gorbachev.(8) Further evidence of this is the fact that he supported centrists in the Duma election in December 1999, and the centrists supported him (the centrists have similar policy outlooks). To succeed with economic reforms, Russia will continue to require co-operative relations with the West. It is unlikely, therefore, that Putin will be considerably more anti-West than Yeltsin has been since 1993. On the other hand, a more authoritarian Russia with greater centralised control of its economy may in turn be slightly less dependent on the West.

While Putin's record speaks for itself concerning economic reform and foreign economic relations, he lacks democratic credentials. His outward (possibly illegal) support for the Unity faction in the 1999 Duma elections, and his unwillingness to speak out against the blatant media bias favouring Unity during the election campaign(9), would indicate that Russia will not be moving any closer to democracy on his watch. Western officials described the December 1999 Duma elections, as well as previous elections, as victories for democracy,(10) but a more accurate description would be victory for market reforms. Granted, the actual casting and counting of ballots has been relatively free and fair in past elections, but the media bias during election campaigns have made a mockery of the democratic process.(11) As Prime Minister, Putin did nothing to correct the problem and actually contributed to it. Furthermore, he admitted that Yeltsin resigned to give Putin the best chance of winning the presidential election. This contributes to doubts about Yeltsin, Putin, and their centrist supporters' commitment to democracy. By forcing an early election, opponents must prepare their presidential campaigns in three months instead of the six they would have had. It also means that an important indicator of a successful new democracy will not be fulfilled - if Putin wins, there will be no peaceful transfer of power by a head of state to an elected successor. Finally, Putin has said the Russian Constitution is fine as it is, meaning there will be no strengthening of parliament in a constitution which presently gives an inordinate amount of power to the president.(12)

What does all this mean for peace? While the Chechen war coincided with Putin's appointment as prime minister in August 1999, the speed with which Russian forces reacted suggests they were ready and waiting for the opportunity to invade Chechnya. Indeed, Sergei Stepashin, Putin's predecessor, has recently revealed that the invasion of Chechnya was planned at least five months beforehand(13) As head of the FSB, Putin would have been involved in the earliest planning stages. The war in the Caucasus has intensified since the election was called so there can be no doubt that Putin is a hawk. The war, therefore, will continue to intensify for the next two months leading up to the presidential election.

With the presidential election slated for March 26, Putin would obviously benefit from an early and conclusive victory in Chechnya. Conversely, if Chechen resistance increases and the war continues into the elections, it will not significantly damage Putin's chance at winning the election - barring some miraculous Chechen military victory. It should be remembered that Yeltsin won a presidential election in the midst of the first Chechen war in 1996, and his popularity was much lower than Putin's when that election campaign began. Moreover, this second war enjoys popular support (though slowly declining), whereas the first one was very unpopular. But even if public opinion turns against the war, it will not be a major factor in determining the next president. Most Western observers attribute too much of Putin's popularity to the war in Chechnya.(14) Granted, Putin is popular because he is portrayed as a strong leader thanks to the war, but also because he is young, healthy, and speaks well (none of which were Yeltsin's attributes) and Russia's economy has improved under his tenure as prime minister, mainly due to rising oil prices.

If past experience is any indication, the war or Putin's personal attributes will matter little: the presidential election will be won on two fronts. First, presidential patronage, threats, bribery, and self-preservation will convince regional governors to throw their support behind Putin. Regional governors are important because they can influence the voting of their constituents. For example, they have been known to make it difficult for opposition candidates to campaign in their districts. Many regional governors who supported Primakov in the December 1999 Duma elections have already shifted their allegiance to Putin. Second, and of much greater importance, is the support of the oligarchs (the wealthy, and allegedly corrupt, oil and banking tycoons) who control the so-called "independent" media and provide campaign financing above and beyond what the law permits. The extremely biased media coverage in favour of the Unity (pro-Putin) bloc during the parliamentary election campaign will most likely continue to favour Putin during the presidential campaign. Though with Putin's present popularity, he will be less dependent on their support than was the case for Yeltsin during his close race against the Communist leader in 1996.

Putin's rise to power does not necessarily translate into increased influence for the Military and military industrial complex (MIC) in foreign policy. Admittedly, when the Army was needed to play some crucial role, their influence increased. But shortly after the crises have been overcome, the Military has been ignored by the politicians. When Yeltsin needed the military to storm the Duma in 1993 their influence peaked, and then faded after the crisis was over. During the first Chechen war the Military was again an important force to be reckoned with. Afterwards, the military turned its attention to its own internal problems. During their deployment in Kosova, the army appeared to act autonomously but have been relatively quiet there since. Nevertheless, the military will continue to play an influential role in the CIS states where the army is deployed. And there are no signs the Russian army will be pulling out of some of those states in the near future. Indeed, the conflict in Chechnya has practically assured a continued Russian military presence in Georgia's adjoining border regions. Of course, the Military's influence will increase now because they are needed by the politicians to fight the second Chechen war. Beyond that, however, when the Chechen conflict ends, they will, in all likelihood, drift back into relative foreign policy obscurity to concentrate once again on their own dire problems; until they are called upon again. Putin's ties are to the security services, not the military as such. However, Putin has promised the Military and MIC more resources, firstly to regain international respect but also to support arms industries and exporters, one of the few successful areas of the economy which is generating hard currency.

As for the domestic rule of law, it is unlikely Putin will conduct much more than a purely demonstrative crackdown or "terror" on corruption; at least not until he has had time to strengthen his power base. After all, his former KGB colleagues make up a large portion of those who benefitted most from the corrupt nature of Russia's reforms. As for the oligarchs who control much of the Russian economy, such as Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Potanin and others, their financial and media support were the key to Yeltsin's election victory in 1996. Putin will want their support in this election. On the other hand, if the "independent" media (ie., the oligarchs) support candidates other than Putin, then this would indicate that Putin may have refused to give the oligarchs protection from prosecution. He is rumoured to have already distanced himself from Berezovsky. (15)So if he wins the election despite negative media coverage by the oligarchs, then we may expect a major corruption crackdown. However, opposition by the oligarchs is unlikely in the short term. First of all, the Unity bloc, which supported Putin, would have experienced much more negative Duma election campaign coverage by the so-called independent media if the oligarchs did not support Putin. Second, it is unlikely that Yeltsin would have appointed Putin without their support. Third, it appears that at least one powerful oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, has been using his media empire to build support for his possible role as an adviser to Putin - if he is not one already.(16) Nevertheless, one thing is certain, Putin is in far better physical and mental condition to stand up to the oligarchs than was the ailing Yeltsin.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect about Putin is his willingness to use, and escalate the use of, force as he is brutally demonstrating in the Chechen war. As a member of the security apparatus Putin will hopefully promote law and order, which Russia desperately needs. But with his KGB background and support base, and non-existent democratic credentials, there remains the concern that he may introduce broad powers to the security services. The fear is that he may not be averse to using force and repression to ensure the success of economic reforms and other policies.

Peace, however, is not only the absence of war or physical oppression. Under Yeltsin the economic conditions for millions of Russians reached unbearable levels. A large part of the population lives below the poverty line.(17) Life expectancy, birth rates, and health care have declined dramatically. Recovery of stolen assets, more centralised control of the economy, and a legitimate crackdown on corruption may improve the economy (it is difficult to believe he could make it much worse). A stronger economy and more social spending would alleviate the misery of millions living in poverty. But given Putin's history, and his support base, it is unlikely that he will choose a radically new economic course. So the economic conditions for the masses may be expected to improve only marginally over the course of his presidency.

There is little evidence to suggest Putin is an ethnic/radical-nationalist. While Chechen and ethnic Russian civilians unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity of Chechen separatist fighters are given no quarter, those civilians who have left active conflict areas are not being massacred or deported from Chechnya. Granted, many must endure terrible conditions, but it appears Putin's plan is to restore services and improve conditions for those who have crossed over into the "liberated" Russian controlled areas. The threat to detain all Chechen males between 10 and 65 has not been carried out. Putin is no Zhirinovsky, even if some Russian's would like him to be.

That the situation in Russia will not remain as it did under Yeltsin should not be a frightening prospect for the West. While the following argument has been made before, it still holds true now: if Putin fails, the alternative will almost surely be an even more radical and aggressive anti-Western nationalist or communist regime. Yes, Putin should be watched carefully, but the West should not overreact or penalise Russia for changes in economic policy (especially since past policies supported by the West have been so ineffective). It is inevitable, considering past experience, that Russia will become less pro-Western than it has been and will seek a more "Russian" approach to the economic difficulties. On the other hand, responsible international behaviour, respect for human rights, and improvements in Russian democracy should be amply rewarded to encourage further movement in those directions. The West and Russia have placed too much emphasis on market reforms in the past and not enough on building democracy. Russia under Putin will continue with the former, but it is the latter which requires encouragement.


1. "Putin the Great Unknown" on the cover of The Economist, (8/1/00); and "Mystery Cloaks Man at Top", Toronto Star (9/1/00) p.B3, to name just two examples.

2. "Putin: Yeltsin's Madness or Silent Coup? Global Intelligence Update," (23/8/99), http://www.stratfor.com.

3. Supporters include Yegor Gaidar, Sergei Kirienko, Anatoli Chubais, and Boris Berezovsky. "What will Putin do?" The Economist, (15/01/00); "Putin Accepts Presidential Race Nomination," Russia Today, (13/01/00); Ian Traynor, "What do we know about the man destined to be Russia's next leader?" The Guardian, (14/01/00);  Kara Murphy, "Putin and Russia: Two Scenarios," Russia Today, (21/01/00), http://www.russiatoday.com/features.php3?id=127666; Stephen Mulvey, "Vladimir Putin: Spy turned politician," BBC News Online, (01/01/00), http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/europe/newsid_415000/415124.stm. 

4. Biographical information and the KGB's role in reforms are from "Russia 2000 - Vladimir Putin: The Face of Russia to Come", http://www.stratfor.com/CIS/countries/Russia/russia2000/ (accessed: 08/01/00); "Biographies", http://www.stratfor.com/CIS/countries/Russia/bios/ (accessed: 08/01/00); and Martin Woollacott, "Russia's new boss has an extremely strange history," The Guardian, (7/01/00).

5. "Putin's Past Scrutinized," RFE/RL Newsline vol.4.7 part I, (11/01/00).

6. "Russia 2000..."

7. Kara Murphy, "Putin and Russia..."

8. Andrew Jack and John Thornhill, "Chechnya assault `a long-term plan'," Financial Times, (31/01/00), http://www.ft.com/hippocampus/q336f9a.htm; Ian Traynor, "What do we know about the man..."

9. Mikhail Delyagin, "Putin's Russia - A Return to Totalitarianism?" Russia Journal, (18/01/00), http://www.russiatoday.com/features.php3?id=126336; "Were Duma elections fair and clean?" Russia Journal, (24/01/00) http:www.russiajournal.com/start/opinion/article.cgi?ind=2131; and John Thornhill, "Putin may push for early poll" Financial Times, (04/01/00), http://www.ft.com .

10.  http://www.stratfor.com/CIS/commentary/c9912220001.htm

11. For a scathing report of the conduct of the Duma campaign see "Preliminary report on Monitoring of Media Coverage during the Parliamentary Elections in the Russian Federation in December 1999," The European Institute for the Media, e-mail: madp@eim.de , (20/12/99).

12.  Vladimir Putin, "Russia at the Turn of the Millennium", http://www.government.gov.ru/english/statVP-engl-1.html.

13.  Andrew Jack and John Thornhill, "Chechnya assault..."

14.  Mikhail Ivanov, "Putin's Real Appeal," Russian Life (19/01/00) http://www.russiatoday.com/ruslife/ruslife.php3?id=126772

15.  Ekaterina Larina, "Katya's Kitchen Table," Russia Journal (31/01/00), http://russiajournal.com/start/columns/article.cgi?ind=2176.

 16. WPS Media Monitoring Agency, election report #46, (29/12/99) http://www.wps.ru/elections_rev_e.html ; and "Russia" Financial Times (7/1/00) http://www.ft.com ; "Putin Accepts Presidential Race Nomination," Russia Today, (13/01/00).

 17. Ian Traynor, "Russia: state of the nation," The Guardian, (14/01/00).


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