Russia's Evolving Leadership
By Lauren Goodrich
Russia has entered election season, with parliamentary elections in December and presidential elections in March 2012. Typically, this is not an issue of concern, as most Russian elections have been designed to usher a chosen candidate and political party into office since 2000. Interesting shifts are under way this election season, however. While on the surface they may resemble
In the past decade, one person has consolidated and run Russia’s political system:
Perceptions of Putin
Putin’s goal was to fix the country, which meant restoring state control (politically, socially and economically), strengthening the FSB and military and re-establishing Russia’s influence and international reputation — especially in the former Soviet sphere of influence. To do so, Putin had to carry Russia through a complex evolution that involved shifting the country from accommodating to aggressive at specific moments. This led to a shift in global perceptions of Putin, with many beginning to see the former KGB agent as a hard-nosed autocrat set upon rekindling hostilities and renewing militarization.
This perception of Putin is not quite correct. While an autocrat and KGB agent (we use the present tense, as Putin has said that no one is a former KGB or FSB agent), he hails from St. Petersburg, Russia’s most pro-Western city, and during his Soviet-era KGB service he was tasked with stealing Western technology. Putin fully understands the strength of the West and what Western expertise is needed to keep Russia relatively modern and strong. At the same time, his time with the KGB convinced him that Russia can never truly be integrated into the West and that it can be strong only with a consolidated government, economy and security service and a single, autocratic leader.
Putin’s understanding of Russia’s two great weaknesses informs this worldview. The first weakness is that Russia was dealt a poor geographic hand. It is inherently vulnerable because it is surrounded by great powers from which it is not insulated by geographic barriers. The second is that its population is comprised of numerous ethnic groups, not all of which are happy with centralized Kremlin rule. A strong hand is the only means to consolidate the country internally while repelling outsiders.
Another major challenge is that Russia essentially lacks an economic base aside from energy. Its grossly underdeveloped transportation system hampers it from moving basic necessities between the country’s widely dispersed economic centers. This has led Moscow to rely on revenue from one source, energy, while the rest of the country’s economy has lagged decades behind in technology.
These geographic, demographic and economic challenges have led Russia to shift between being aggressive to keep the country secure and being accommodating toward foreign powers in a bid to modernize Russia.
Being from groups that understood these challenges, Putin knew a balance between these two strategies was necessary. However, Russia cannot go down the two paths of accommodating and connecting with the West and a consolidated authoritarian Russia at the same time unless Russia is first strong and secure as a country, something that has only happened recently. Until then, Russia must switch between each path to build the country up — which explains shifting public perceptions of Putin over the past decade from pro-Western president to an aggressive authoritarian. It also explains the recent view of Putin’s successor as president, Dmitri Medvedev, as democratic and agreeable when compared to Putin.
Neither leader is one or the other, however: Both have had their times of being aggressive and accommodating in their domestic and foreign policies. Which face they show does not depend upon personalities but rather upon the status of Russia’s strength.
Putin, who had no choice but to appeal to the West to help keep the country afloat when he took office in 2000, initially was hailed as a trusted partner by the West. But even while former U.S. President George W. Bush was praising Putin’s soul, behind the scenes, Putin already was reorganizing one of his greatest tools — the
After 9/11, Putin was the first foreign leader to phone Bush and offer any assistance from Russia. The date marked an
Russia was already solidifying its strength by 2003, by which time the West had noticed its former enemy’s resurgence. The West subsequently initiated a series of moves not to weaken Russia internally (as this was too difficult by now) but to contain Russian power inside its own borders. This spawned a highly contentious period between both sides during which the West supported
By now, however, the Kremlin had a new president,
Medvedev’s New Pragmatism
When Medvedev entered office, his current reputation for compliance and pragmatism did not exist. Instead, he continued on Russia’s roll forward with one of the boldest moves to date — the
By 2009, Russia had proven its power in its direct sphere and so began to ease into a new foreign and domestic policy of duality. Only when Russia is strong and consolidated can it drop being wholly aggressive and adopt such a stance of hostility and friendliness. To achieve this, the definition of a “tandem” between Putin and Medvedev became more defined, with Putin as the enforcer and strong hand and Medvedev as the pragmatic negotiator (by Western standards). On the surface, this led to what seemed like a bipolar foreign and domestic policy, with
With elections approaching, the ruling tandem seems even more at odds as Medvedev overturns many policies Putin put into place in the early 2000s, such as the ban on certain political parties, the ability of foreign firms to work in strategic sectors and the role of the FSB elite within the economy. Despite the apparent conflict, the changes are part of an overall strategy shared by Putin and Medvedev to finish consolidating Russian power.
These policy changes show that Putin and Medvedev feel confident enough that they have attained their first imperative that they can look to confront the second inherent problem for the country: Russia’s lack of modern technology and lack of an economic base. Even with Russian energy production at its height, its energy technologies need revamping, as do every other sector, especially transit and telecommunication. Such a massive modernization attempt cannot be made without foreign help. This was seen in past efforts throughout Russian history when other strong leaders from Peter the Great to Josef Stalin were forced to bring in foreign assistance, if not an outright presence, to modernize Russia.
Russia thus has launched a
However, this has created two large problems. First, foreign governments and firms are hesitant to do business in an authoritarian country with a record of kicking foreign firms out. At the same time, the Kremlin knows that it cannot lessen its hold inside of Russia without risking losing control over its first imperative of securing Russia. Therefore, the tandem is instead implementing a complex system to ensure it can keep control while looking as if it were becoming more democratic.
The Appearance of Democracy
The first move is to strengthen the ruling party — United Russia — while allowing more independent political parties. United Russia already has been shifted into having many sub-groups that represent the more conservative factions, liberal factions and
While these new political parties appear to operate outside the Kremlin’s clutches, this is just for show. The most important new party is Russia’s Right Cause launched by
The next part of the new system is an ambiguous organization Putin recently announced, the All Russia’s Popular Front, or “Popular Front” for short. The Popular Front is not exactly a political party but an umbrella organization meant to unite the country. Popular Front members include Russia’s labor unions, prominent social organizations, economic lobbying sectors, big business, individuals and political parties. In short, anything or anyone that wants to be seen as pro-Russian is a part of the Popular Front. On the surface, the Popular Front has attempted to remain vague to avoid revealing how such an organization supersedes political parties and factions. It creates a system in which power in the country does not lie in a political office — such as the presidency or premiership — but with the person overseeing the Popular Front: Putin.
So after a decade of aggression, authoritarianism and nationalism, Russia has become strong once again, both internally and regionally, such that it is confident enough to shift policies and plan for its future. The new system is designed to have a dual foreign policy, to attract non-Russian groups back into the country and to look more democratic overall while all the while being carefully managed behind the scenes. It is managed pluralism underneath not a president or premier, but under a person more like the leader of the nation, not just the leader of the state. In theory, the new system is meant to allow the Kremlin to maintain control of both its grand strategies of needing to reach out abroad to keep Russia modern and strong and trying to ensure that the country is also under firm control and secure for years to come. Whether the tandem or the leader of the nation can balance such a complex system and overcome the