Straight Forward into the Past
No. 2 2004 April/June

Vladimir Putin’s presidency is being praised to the high heavens
and certain individuals have been forwarding their programs for
“restoring the ruined power.” Mikhail Leontyev’s article is
remarkable in that respect, but not so much for its praising
passages, but because it reflects the mindset of a certain part of
the Russian political elite that would like to set the tune of
Putin’s second term in office. It is surprising that the author (or
authors), as if possessing a knowledge that is inaccessible to
ordinary people, hints that Putin has no intention of following the
political course he declared in his policy statement on February
12, 2004. In light of the unexpected – and obviously illogical –
dismissal of Mikhail Kasyanov’s Cabinet of Ministers, Russian
society has been speculating about what new turns will be made in
the presidential course.

When Putin launched his election campaign, he made it
unequivocally clear that he had chosen a liberal stance. “Only free
people can ensure economic growth and prosperity for their nation,”
he said. “In a nutshell, these are the pillars on which the success
of economic development rests.” However, the ways of restoring the
state that are discussed in Leontyev’s article prove that the
authors are advising Putin on a different course of action and
cherish the hope that they will be heeded. Their program for the
so-called “civilized revenge,” actually appears to be a new version
of authoritarian state policy. The methods used by
the government during Putin’s first term in office have made
evident at least one thing: there is a sharp contrast between
Putin’s liberal policy statement and the actual political processes
in the country. A natural question arises: Does this contradiction
come from Putin’s apprehensions, or a desire to rectify the careen
in Russian policies that has become evident since 2003?  Is it
the President’s wish to calm the Russian liberal minority, not to
mention the West, who are so concerned about the transformation of
power in Russia? It could be argued that by dismissing the Cabinet,
Putin made the decision to reaffirm his stated liberal-market
political course.


The recent presidential election in Russia did not only
symbolize the automatic re-endorsement of Putin’s presidency; it
signaled the end of a period in Russian history known as
‘post-Communist experiment.’ Putin has consolidated his political
regime and now needs to cement the system that has taken shape in
Russia. While preparing the cement mix for this purpose, he will
have to measure the proportion of the ingredient ideas, such as
strong statehood, patriotism, populism, and liberalism. What
guideline will the President ultimately choose for Russia? I would
rather agree that a return to “Yeltsinism,” in terms of an
oligarchic method of rule, is hardly possible. At the same time, a
repeat of Yeltsin’s methods of courting favorites, while putting
together a new “Family,” cannot be ruled out either. I tend to
share Leontyev’s thoughts concerning the chances of a leftist
populist scenario in the near future. Even the staunch “patriots”
in the circle that is close to the Kremlin realize the destructive
nature of the anti-Western style of Vladimir Zhirinovsky or Dmitry
Rogozin. On the face of it, the liberal alternative appears to have
been discredited, and its proponents are demoralized. It is very
doubtful that Putin will take up the ideas of a political force
that has suffered defeat.

There are indications that the Russian political quarters are
vigorously working to blend authoritarianism with economic reforms
and an orientation toward a strong state. However, they do not want
these attempts to frighten the West. In other words, a new type of
traditionalism is taking shape that is free of the Communist shell.
By “traditionalism” I mean that the accent is still being made on
the leader’s personified and unlimited power in domestic policy,
together with the use of force in foreign policy.

What do the new traditionalists propose and what do they object
to? The emotion of Leontyev’s article suggests that they are
enthusiastic about Putin’s decision to push the radical
oppositionists out of the scene. This is a vain type of
satisfaction, however, as the removal of all forces except
bureaucracy from Russian politics fertilizes the soil for the
growth of radicalism of all colors, ranging from liberalism to
leftist nationalism. The appearance of Sergei Glazyev on Russia’s
political stage as Putin’s main opponent perfectly illustrates this
tendency. A political vacuum is always fraught with erratic and
unpredictable developments. That is why the Western democracies
cultivate a diversity of political approaches and, of course,
opposition parties. In this way they try to preclude any quandaries
for the state. In this sense, Leontyev’s acerbic remarks about the
opposition being increasingly “Rybkinized” are premature. Shiftless
opposition means trouble for Russia’s state power and a threat to
its only political institution – the presidency.

As concerns the zealous proponents of full state authority and,
at the same time, “full sovereignty” for Russia, this idea has long
expired; a country’s membership in any international organization
implies the voluntary restriction of its sovereign powers. Russia’s
sovereignty will have to be limited, unless it fancies for itself
the role of a global “outcast.” If Russia wants to remain on the
side of the civilized world, it will have to adopt the rules
exercised by the international community.

Presently, it seems that those who seek to become support
pillars for Putin regard full sovereignty as the right to use force
in the dimensions unlimited by legislation. This position may be
viewed as a symmetric response to the policies of the U.S.
neo-conservatives who also place the use of force above the law.
However, the situation inside and outside Iraq has made it clear as
daylight that the U.S. policy of force has provoked the most severe
political crisis of the past decade. This policy has split the
Western community and brought about a decline of support for the
Republican Party amongst many Americans.

If Russia copies the U.S. model, a dialog with the West will
hardly be possible. Moreover, an expansionist understanding of
Russia’s sovereignty that fails to be supported by adequate
resources threatens to make Russia nothing more than a source of


Let us now analyze the main thesis of the neo-traditionalists.
It looks very simple: during his first term in office Putin began
restoring the Russian state; during his second term, he will have
an opportunity to use the state machinery for modernizing Russia
and earning it a worthy place in the world.

That Russia stands in need of a strong state capable of
guaranteeing social rights and civilized living conditions to its
citizens is indisputable. It does need a modern bureaucracy, strong
armed forces, and efficient special services to ensure national
security. But this kind of state does not contradict the ideals of
Western liberalism, and this is proved by the everyday practices of
any developed society.

The liberal project does not demand that Russia simply observe
all of the Western recipes. Russia’s past experience of cooperating
with the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for
Reconstruction and Development suggests that it should take a
cautious approach to the recommendations that it may get from the
West; Russia may have interests that differ from those of the
leading world powers. Western nations are split, and each of them
has its own view of how the world should develop, which was
graphically manifest by the recent Iraqi crisis.

The real question is hinged on whether we understand a “strong
state” as one which establishes the rules of the game that are
observed both by society and those in power. Or do we understand
the state to be controlled by a handful of people in the Kremlin
corridors of power who behave according to their own “perceptions
of the game,” as opposed to the requirements of the law? The first
type of a state is the one where the rules of the game are ensured
by laws and independent institutions. The second type is one that
is able to ensure only one thing – a society without rules.

Indeed, during his first term of presidency President Putin
succeeded in dragging the country out of chaos; however, the state
that has arisen as result of his presidency is basically identical
to the one Russia had under Yeltsin – it continues to bypass laws
without any principles. There is a slight difference, however:
whereas the lawless state under Yeltsin was non-systemic, Putin has
turned the “perceptions-driven” state machinery into a system. But
what does this system rely on? It relies on the fact that the
President must make up for the absence of law or the executive’s
inability to implement law. For instance, he has to meet with the
oligarchs at his dacha and lay out the rules of “equidistant
alienation” for them. Or he must give personal guarantees to the
Western state leaders and businessmen for foreign investment in
Russia. It would be inconceivable in any normal democratic society
when the country’s number one citizen has to work in substitution
of the law. In Russia, however, life would be inconceivable without
such a substitution. Putin chose to personally perform the
functions of the law; this decision must have come from his lack of
faith with the rules, together with the perception that his
personal obligations and guarantees as a president are the more
efficient ways of handling things.

Every time the President stands in substitution of the law or
any of the branches of power, we are inclined to take it as a
forced measure and believe that the rules will appear soon and work
automatically. Nothing of the sort has happened so far, and we will
not see this happen until the political class stops entrusting the
President with the powers of an arbiter standing beyond society.
Arbiters, too, can make mistakes and their obligations are not
everlasting. When Putin moves out of the Kremlin, there will be no
guarantees that the new leader will be committed to the old
obligations. The very practice of living beyond rules brings about
the omnipotent power favorites and a type of power succession that
boils down to the denial of the previous chapters in the nation’s
history. Yeltsin wiped out Gorbachev together with the country,
Putin wiped out Yeltsin, together with his regime. What will
Putin’s successor do?

The strengthening of authoritarianism, i.e. the President’s
personal power, will have no dramatic effect on the situation if
the state machinery continues “acting according to perceptions.”
True, people are more apprehensive of an authoritarian leader, but
life without rules will continue, with the stakes growing still

Can a state living without rules and organized by the will of
one person be economically efficient? The answer is definitely no.
It cannot be predictable, because it can exist only in the absence
of clear obligations before its citizens. In light of this,
Leontyev’s assertion that the basis for modernization has been
created in Russia is wishful thinking. The current state system is,
in fact, a system of self-preservation and of status quo, but not
of development. It can only guarantee to run around in a circle
which must produce the illusion of movement.

If Putin is really determined to consolidate this type of state
– and Leontyev believes that he is – then it means that in the
short-term Russia is doomed to stagnation. And we should also bear
in mind that a system designed along the principles of a
“transmission belt” has no chance for managing crises: any blow
will crush it like a sandcastle. Many of us remember only too well
what happened to the “transmission belt-driven” systems. A glaring
example is the collapse of the Soviet Union. Incidentally, it had
much stronger life support systems than Russia presently

If Putin really plans to go on with the transformation, albeit
in a more liberal and systemic way, then it remains unclear how he
can succeed with the existing state system and political class
which pushes him to replace the regular rules of the game with its
own rules.


Leontyev eagerly points to a ready-made enemy – the democratic
opposition which is trying to bereave us of Putin. Now, where are
these audacious terminators who are threatening the President? Are
they in Garry Kasparov’s discussion club? Let us be serious; the
President is in danger, but not because of the oppositional forces.
The threat comes from the system that took shape under Yeltsin and
was consolidated under Putin’s leadership. The political regime
that he has built presently constrains him and makes him more
vulnerable than Yeltsin was. There is an old truth: the more powers
a leader has, the more he is compelled to share them with the
suite. And the more he does so, the weaker he becomes. The
impotence of omnipotence is an axiom, which was made evident during
Yeltsin’s presidency, as well as by many rulers before him.

Putin has to carry alongside his ratings an awkward crowd of
opportunists who have infested the agencies of the executive, the
United Russia party and several organizations that the Kremlin has
set up. All of these monsters do not help the President to broaden
the base of his leadership. On the contrary, they enfeeble him by
misusing his popularity.

By towering over society, the authorities are losing contact
with reality. This situation generates the risk of inadequate
decisions, especially as the legislative power and the judiciary
have actually turned into departments of the presidential

The nature of the state structure is such that the leader, even
having immense powers, is unable to subjugate the mammoth machine
that unavoidably strives to meet its own interests rather than
fulfill the leader’s objectives. The further strengthening of such
a state will make the President increasingly cornered by the
demands of that state and its bureaucracy.

Already, it is obvious that the President has to satisfy the
demands of his regime to the detriment of his own leadership, and
this year’s election campaign, in which the Kremlin virtually ruled
out any competition with Putin, provides a glaring proof. A
question arises: What bugbear scared the guys at the top so much?
Was it the phenomenon of the late General Alexander Lebed? But
where was the candidate for that role? It is hard to believe that
liberal Irina Khakamada, leftwing Sergei Glazyev or Communist
Nikolai Kharitonov could have filled the void left by Lebed. Or
maybe the President did not deign to compete with that handful of
contenders? Then why did his team clean out the electoral field so
heartily? By paving the road for Putin against possible contenders
before the December 2003 election to the State Duma, the Kremlin
devalued the significance of Putin’s victory in the March 2004
presidential election.

Another disservice of the authoritarian mindset was the apparent
attempt to put an imperial gloss on Putin: dressed in a military
uniform, he was led to a military exercise to watch a farce of
missile launches. The launches failed, but they served to hold up
Russia’s military to ridicule, while dealing a blow to the
president’s dignity. Is it the Russian special way of eliminating
“national humiliation?”


No doubt, people can extol Putin’s efforts to revive Russia, but
all of the praise will not make it easier for him to find answers
to the structural challenges that he obviously faces.

His primary challenge is to earn a full-fledged
legitimacy of his own, not the one that was
bestowed on him by his predecessor. Now that the role of violence
has been limited, and all the previously known tools of
legitimization of power have been exhausted, elections can be the
only instrument for forming state power. However, the present
electoral system is turning into just another time bomb for Russia.
U.S.S.R. President Mikhail Gorbachev dreamt of elections becoming
an instrument for renovating the Soviet state; instead, they caused
its destruction. Today’s manipulations with the electoral system
are “a tune from the same opera” – they are undermining Putin’s new
leadership and the very foundations of the state.

The second most serious challenge is assuming
, which is totally flouted in Russia since
“no one is responsible for anything.” Despite the concentration of
powers in the President’s hands, he bears no real responsibility
for the country’s political course, government, law enforcement, or
administrative resources since he has been placed beyond the reach
of criticism. All of the other executives have no such powers to
bear responsibility. In the meantime, the country’s modernization
is impossible without clearly specified responsibility. Will Putin
be able to summon the courage and break the vicious circle of the
pervasive ‘I couldn’t care less’ attitude? As a first step, he
should have attached some responsibility to the parliamentary
majority (the United Russia party) for the Cabinet of Ministers and
appointed Boris Gryzlov (its leader) prime minister. Of course,
these moves would mean a certain loss of quality, but they would
also mean the acquisition of principles. It is important that
somebody bear responsibility for something in this country!

Challenge number three is the continuity of
which can, to a great degree, predestine our
future. Putin will have to decide on how he will ensure the
continuity of power – by prolonging his stay in the Kremlin or by
appointing a man to succeed him. He seems to be quite earnest when
he says he will not change the Constitution to stay in the
presidential office longer than prescribed by law, unless some
dramatic circumstances compel him to do so. But if the crowd of
activists feeding on his popularity ratings realizes that he is
truly going, they will immediately rush to find him a successor.
Then Putin is likely to become a lame duck, with great reforms
dropping off his agenda. Regardless, Putin has just two years ahead
of him to carry out his reforms, since a new cycle of power will
begin in 2006, be it with Putin or without him.

The fourth challenge is to prevent deterioration in
relations with the West
. Putin has confirmed his
existential pro-Western orientation, but his thesis that Russia
must integrate into the family of developed Western democracies has
never experienced a practical implementation. So today we have to
think about how we can allay the Cold War syndrome. Why was our
romance with the West so short-lived yet again? Briefly speaking,
there were two factors. First, Russia failed to assimilate the
liberal model and was unable to imitate it skillfully. Second, the
Western community has been mired in its own problems and is
unprepared to admit Russia into its orbit. It fails to understand
that integration is a global priority of the same significance as
fighting international terrorism or nuclear nonproliferation.

One way or another, Putin will have to think now about averting
Russia’s drift to a new isolationism, to say nothing of a new


Admittedly, I am not optimistic about the prospects for Russia’s
modernization during Vladimir Putin’s second term of presidency.
The political developments over the past few years have helped make
his liberal election platform look like a “special operation”
designed to calm the grumbling Russian liberals and Western
politicians, who have suddenly developed a concern over the future
of Russian democracy. If Putin really wants to make the liberal
course a guideline for action during his second term in office
(which means that all his activity in 2003 was but a “special
operation”), two questions arise: Who will he rely on for carrying
out his reformist agenda? How successful can a liberal course be if
it is carried out by non-liberals?

 We will have to wait and see. President Putin has
determined the vector to further development, and we will have an
opportunity to judge his liberal course against the benchmarks that
he has articulated in his policy statement.