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Vladimir Putin Makes a Strong Case for National Renewal

[translated from GegenStandpunkt: PolitischeVierteljahrzeitschrift 1-2000, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich]

1.

On New Year’s Eve, 2000, Boris Yeltsin surprised his country and others one last time. Before his regular period of office ended, he handed his power over to his prime minister, Vladimir Putin. During his last public appearance on Russian television he affirmed he had wanted only the best for Russia and its people, even if much had turned out quite differently. His successor assured him life-long immunity from any possible prosecution; an assurance the ex-president obviously is in need of. Since then, Mr. Putin has been head of the Kremlin. And he immediately publicized a devastating diagnosis as to the state of affairs in Russia, of which the surprising thing was less the diagnosis itself but the fact that the head of the state no longer deludes himself about the situation:

"The state of affairs the national economy is in, the imperfection of the system in which the state and the civil society are organized, the sociopolitical polarization of the Russian society and the criminalization of social relations, the increase of organized crime and the growing extent of terrorism, the aggravation of relations between the different nationalities and increasingly complicated international relations cause a broad spectrum of internal and external threats to the national security of our country... The negative processes in the economy are the basis for separatist endeavors of a number of subjects in the Russian federation." (from the new "Concept of National Security," resolved under Putin’s leadership.)

"I am convinced that we won’t solve any problems, economic or social, as long as the state is deteriorating". (Putin, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), Frankfort, January 6, 2000)

With one blow, the new man sweeps aside Yeltsin’s big talk to the effect that Russia had to struggle with various serious problems but that he, the president, would guarantee by his own person and all his power that, despite all the adversities, the new way of reform would be continued and brought to a satisfactory conclusion. Putin programmatically does away with the lie, which claimed that the conditions bewailed by everybody were nothing but mere difficulties of transition to a new way, to which there were no alternative, that these problems were severe indeed but could be gotten over by some good will. He instead brings the deplorable state of affairs and all the problems generally lamented about to the one decisive point: they are signs of the "decay of Russia," i.e., the ongoing ruin of the state’s power. This power has not increased on its new transitional path to success but has been brought to the brink of ruin. In all the years his predecessor traded under the name of a departure into a better future, those in charge have produced the result that political rule doesn’t function any more. It is less and less in command in the country, civil obedience is continually refused, and territorial integrity called into question. The government has to face more and more helplessly the disregard of elementary Russian interests in foreign affairs. The new president declares this state of affairs, which became habitual under Yeltsin, to be unbearable and promises to take remedial action.

The latter turns out to be as fundamental as the diagnosis. What the man promises is not to remedy one or another wrong thing. This would be hopeless, he says, as long as the real crisis is not dealt with: the increasing destruction of governmental power must be stopped. Putin stands up for stopping this process of destruction, for restoring Moscow’s command and providing the country with renewed international weight and prestige. The departure he has programmatically announced is aimed at bringing the people in general under his exclusive control, especially and in particular those who have appropriated parts of the public power and its means, and access to the material resources of the country from the Soviet heritage. He intends to re-monopolize the dismembered ruling power, to found a bourgeois monopoly of force at last, a decade after the end of the one-party rule, and to reestablish the nation in foreign affairs.

2.

Putin sets to work as is necessary for such a national rescue program. Military power, of course, is required for the acknowledged ongoing national crisis, when it is a matter of restoring Moscow’s sole responsibility for country and people; and forcing this through against fundamental resistance where the Russian claim for power is forcefully disputed on its own territory, where national cohesion is endangered by separatist uprising, and, consequently, where imminent action is called for: in Chechnya. Putin declares the prevention of Chechnya’s breaking away to be a question of national destiny. There, the restoration or ruin of Russian power is put to the test:

"It is all about putting an end to Russia’s decline—this is the main task. ... Russia needs a strong state power and is going to get it." (Handelsblatt, January 4, 2000)

The way Russia "is going to get" a "strong state power" is through war; not an extended police action against a bunch of terrorists—the time of all the apologetic interpretations playing down the military operations in the Caucasus is over. "An end has been put to the hypocritical official phrasings as regards the deployment of troops in fighting an ‘internal enemy’." (The Independent Newspaper [Nezavisimaya Gazeta], January 20, 2000) This is a civil war of a special kind: a military campaign against a country, the actual leadership of which has pushed ahead with the renunciation of loyalty to Moscow up to the extreme of forcefully breaking with the Russian Federation and attempting to found a new small state. This war of extermination makes an example of an entire province that the will of the Russian state, personified in Yeltsin’s successor, will not stand for any nonsense whatsoever: this is a nothing short of a state-founding war.

At any rate, this is the great importance Putin assigns to the massacre in the Caucasus. He actually gives it this importance by having the army take as bloody and intimidating an action as is required in accordance with the elementary logic of a functioning bourgeois monopoly of force, so that nobody will dare try anything in the future ever again. In no way is it to result in a replay of the first Chechen war which was ended by a fatal deal: Chechen military commander Aslan Mashadov had to abstain from immediately proclaiming ‘national independence’, while the de facto separation of Chechnya was silently accepted. Doubts as to whether the unmanageable province weren’t more of a strain on Russia’s strength than a contribution to it, especially since the dispute is putting a strain on relations with the West, are thus also brushed aside. Anything other than irrevocably incorporating it into Russia’s territory is out of the question; and this means eradicating the entire resistance. The initial distinction made between loyal and rebellious Chechens which intended to separate both of them by a "cordon sanitaire" crossing Chechnya is given up. According to Putin’s conclusions, Moscow must not make its claims for sovereignty dependent on the will of the people but establish its responsibility by force; on this basis the people might be allowed to form their free political will.

3.

In order to provide its society with a bourgeois peace under law, Moscow’s presidential power is behaving within its own area of responsibility with as state terror as is required for a modern post-Soviet monopoly of force. By doing this, it is also rebuilding Russia’s borders to the outside world, most importantly in the sense that the state power strengthens its southern frontiers in the Caucasus with irresistible force to exclude any cross-border influence. In that regard, the terror in Chechnya is a deterrence policy brought to bear against any foreign power: against foreign countries, most likely neighbors; against organized political guerillas, Islamic fundamentalists in this case, including interested state sponsors behind-the-scene.

On the other side, by forcefully restoring its contested frontier in the Caucasus, Russia reestablishes its position as a power in the Caucasus. As a superpower it associates its interest in that mountainous region with a responsibility which reaches beyond borders, claiming to set the rules for all the other national sovereigns in the region. By making massive use of its military power, Putin’s new Russia monopolizes a region in which in the meantime all the countries, with the exception of Armenia, have decided against Russia and in favor of aligning their national prospects with the West. Partly, they openly come out in favor of NATO membership, partly they offer military bases on their territory to the Western alliance. The majority sees their future in becoming oil-exporting countries or transit stations for the oil and gas pipeline by which, in bypassing Russia, the United States intends to take control of the region’s oil resources. The new boss of the Kremlin does not leave it to making empty statements, but presumes the right to include his neighbors in his war strategy. Georgian villages are bombarded, and Georgia is subjugated to the logistic requirements of the Russian military campaign and thus confronted with a forceful objection to the anti-Russian trend of Georgian independence.

The newly expressed will to power is making a great impression on neighboring countries. Like all the others, Georgia, which is in Russia's sights, felt itself obliged to support Russian positions at the latest summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Azerbaijan recognized Moscow once more as an impartial intermediary in its dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh even though Russia acts as Armenia’s protecting power. And, in the name of a fight against Islamic terrorism, Uzbekistan made a pro-Russian turn-around at the summit.

4.

Above and beyond this, the program to regain Russian greatness is principally directed against the West. The belligerent endeavors for self-assertion in Chechnya and beyond its borders are aimed at holding back the penetration of NATO, the United States and Europe into this region, a region decisive for Russia. In addition, by his propaganda and his deeds, the new man on principle foists upon the West respect for Russia’s elementary need to stand as a power in the future. In a programmatic way, he refuses to tolerate Western attempts at interference, which he has to expect since he realistically assumes that his plan is in no way in the West’s interest. Accordingly, he considers the "relations based on partnership" cultivated with the West and its "credit aid" as possible means of extortion against his military program. He spells out how he intends to deal with Russia’s dependency on Western goodwill and credits, into which his country has maneuvered itself by its reforms: either the West will acknowledge and back his program for national self-assertion, or in principle the entire partnership and all economic relations have to be revalued: they may be judged as a threat against which Russia needs to fight back.

"We have to make up our mind on what we want—keeping the territory between the Black and the Caspian Sea?—or foreign credits? In this case we decide on retaining the territory". (Putin, Spiegel, February, 2000)

In the sense of this decision, when chasing Chechen independence fighters on Georgian territory, the army dismisses the possibility that Georgia is a threat with its new-found backing from NATO. In the same sense, Putin’s government stops the attempts of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to scrutinize the "humanitarian" character of Russia’s war strategy on the scene; i.e., to go into action as a higher control agency. Accordingly, the new president makes sure that no doubts arise as to his refusal to modify his war strategy because of Russia’s budget deficit and the IMF’s demand to reduce it. Where the money for pay and for the newly-required war material is insufficient, it is to be printed.

Thus, Putin reverses the list of priorities in Yeltsin’s policies. He no longer accepts fostering good relations with the West as the first and foremost guideline of Russian politics, but demands from the West the acknowledgement of Russia’s fundamental program of self-assertion—and does so as unconditionally as he thinks necessary, even before any specific content of Russian interests over which a dialog could be established. He thereby in principle rejects the policy pursued by the West to continually deprive Russia of its power and by so doing to keep it predictable.

5.

As a consequence, the new head of the Kremlin no longer presents himself as a resolute advocate of the necessities of the reform to a market economy, the results of which were to be used, sometime and somehow, to establish Russian power. Instead, he is prepared to subordinate civil life to a program aimed at regaining state power.

Well beyond the actual question of financing a war, this firstly means in principle a new distinction between power and economy. The state revises its relation towards all those who are no longer called "nomenclature" as in Soviet times, but now called "the" economy as in the West, since they are in fact it. Despite all their business activities, these characters have been denying required financial services to the official government, whose power now has to be executed with money in accordance with the rules of a market economy, and have failed to deliver any substantial contribution to the treasury. The opinion valid at the moment no longer excuses this circumstance as "criminal" growing pains of a victorious capitalistic system but discerns a national emergency which must be overcome: after a decade of Yeltsin, nobody in Russia is listening to the government any more, let alone servicing its legitimate demands in any law-abiding way. Here again, the envisaged countermeasure corresponds to the diagnosis: not another economic program, not another new "reform," and in no way more "anti-inflationary policy." Instead: more force. The authority of the state must make itself respected again. That is why first of all the control of all the economic activities in the country has to be made effective—again. Right away several governmental secret services are authorized to spy on the business transactions made by the makers and shakers of the free market economy. All companies are ordered to modify their computers to make this access possible. There is obviously an experienced man in charge here.

This will to reorganize the state’s access to the economy can only become effective, however, if Moscow’s command again becomes valid on a national scale, if all the characters who have appropriated some power of command can bring themselves to function as subordinate branches of a sole state power centered in Moscow. This is why all levels of the Federation are ordered to "obey law and order," a second important point in the program of inner renewal. What is meant in that particular is spelled out: submission under the central power, which is to decide how far "autonomy" is allowed to go.

This in turn can only function if the president really has a monopoly on the state’s power—i.e., a coercive machinery which can control the nation if need be. The military therefore has the finally decisive role in Putin’s fundamental program of resolving a state of emergency. This brings us back to the Chechen war, because the deployment of the army is putting the monopoly of coercion into effect as an example no satrap can avoid respecting.

It will only be this, of course, if it doesn’t turn out in the end to be a final military exertion which wears out the instrument of power. This is a danger the new man in the Kremlin was the first to see and fight: according to an official opinion, "the morale and the operational abilities of the Russian troops are critically low." Restoring and increasing their striking power over and above that of the Caucasus action, said to be Russia’s biggest military campaign since the Second World War, is consequently of the utmost importance. New armament programs are launched within the framework of a new security doctrine; this—in combination with the commander-in-chief's visit to Chechnya—raises the fighting spirit of the army for a short time at least. Together with the propaganda of military success in the Caucasus, this has so far also been a contribution to Putin’s undertaking. He confronts the country and its inhabitants with so much power at his command that all his many co-rulers have been impressed, and he has gained so much respect for himself that he was elected president. (Western experts of democracy made this out to be the single motive for his "populist" manners.) What remains to be done is to "turn" his personal power of command into a credibly-restored official monopoly of force.

6.

As far as the credibility of his actions in a democratic sense is concerned, Putin has had his successes. The Russian people gave credence to him as the "strong man" believed to be able to save Russia. His first success was the election for the Duma last fall, although he himself didn’t stand for office. His "Unity" party—newly conjured up out of thin air—offered the chance for Russian patriotic voters to admire the man coming on as a rabble-rouser, and challenged the prevailing style of Yeltsin’s rule, in which the large and small "oligarchs" fought for access to pieces of power they could personally make use of. According to the reproachful statements of the Western press, a team of nothing but "unfamiliar faces" without any "specific program" was sent to the legislature. The party's spiritual leader, Putin, together with its official head, Putin’s Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, wooed the voters with the widely publicized statement that they had no time for election campaigns due to the task of saving the nation in Chechnya. Accordingly, "Unity" became as strong as the Russian Communist Party (RCP), which—since Yeltsin’s era—has been upholding the Russian national will—more of the old Soviet kind of patriotism instead of the new bourgeois type—against the parties of "democratic reforms" and their competition for posts in exploiting the inherited power and its resources. In dealing with this loyal alternative power which was well received by a strong minority, Putin again showed his democratic skills: "Unity" and the RCP joined forces against the reformers in filling the posts in the Duma. With this move, Putin got a few things straightened out: even when dealing with the legislature, emergency policy really is what matters to him; the old so-called 'main contradiction' between good reform and bad Soviet nostalgia is from now on obsolete:

"We must make an end to a policy of confrontation ... We won’t separate the deputies into ours and others." (Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), Munich, January 9, 2000)

On the one hand, the attempts to exclude the RCP, which has long since redefined its "communism" into a patriotic need for being respectably ruled in Russia’s capitalistically destroyed society, are done with, and on the other hand the reformers, who have always put their ideas of a liberal economy above the elementary requirements of solid rule—the source of bourgeois freedom—have no say any more. And with all this, Putin pointedly puts the largest conceivable distance between himself and his predecessor to whom he owes his office. Nobody could avoid noticing that; and it helped him get elected president in the spring. It is, however, more worth noticing in which way the man has recommended himself. Nothing indicates more clearly than the almost contemptuous way in which Putin has distanced himself from the ex-president that the degradation of state power into assets free for competition between interested persons with resources and influence—personified in Yeltsin—is brought to an end. What is announced is a time of militant re-foundation of the Russian state. For this, the citizens as voters are invited to declare their support.

7.

The West feels very challenged by this new general line of self-assertive Russian politics. It gives vent to this annoyance in its public indignation at the Chechen massacre, towards the national significance of which—the accompanying necessities of state terror included—all the experts of a functioning monopoly of force turn a blind eye. Understandably, they don’t want to bring the foundation of a bourgeois state’s power up for discussion, but rather to deny the Russian empire the right to its vigorous and violent re-foundation. In doing so, the free media exactly expresses what their officials feel, although the latter have more trouble showing their indignation, because in the world of diplomacy, a too-vehement indictment would constitute a declaration of war. Such a declaration cannot be made as easily against Moscow as against Belgrade, and would certainly cause problems if made against a Russian president who, on his part, faces the West in an openly challenging way. That is why the German foreign minister Fischer warns himself, when visiting Moscow, of

"any attempts to put Moscow under pressure. The West can only admonish Russia. ... An isolation of Russia by sanctions would be the wrong way." (SZ, January 22, 2000)

In the same vein the diplomacy experts in Brussels:

"The political configuration has altered with the change from Yeltsin to Putin. Brussels is convinced that Putin will win the presidential election and considers it wise to prepare itself for cooperation with him. Since the war in Chechnya is popular in Russia and has increased his chances of being elected, the EU, if it were to proceed too rashly, would risk being perceived by the Russian public as an enemy." (Neue Züricher Zeitung, Zurich, January 4, 2000)

On the other hand, prudence and caution can not possibly be the West’s last word. It cannot avoid in the end deciding the alternative, which the former American presidential adviser, Zbigniew Brezinski, spelled out with all the conciseness of an American diplomat:

"Is Putin going to be a Pinochet or a Milosevic?" (FAZ, January 4, 2000)

Should it be conceded to the new man in the Kremlin that he forcibly consolidate his state, because Russia would then be predictable? Or, should one decide to regard the restorer of Russian nationhood in the same way as the "rogue states," because then barriers to the West’s grasping will again arise, barriers that have for a long time been torn down? Only one thing is certain: the good times, when Russia almost collapsed into powerlessness and was easy to manage thanks to a useful president, are coming to an end. An easy-care power vacuum in which the West could intervene at will, on which maybe even a profit could be made without any big administrative expenses incurring for the Western beneficiaries, would have been just too good to function in the long run.

That was the 'Yeltsin model.' How surprising that it died sooner than "our man Boris" himself.


© GegenStandpunkt 2000