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Analysis: Kremlin Articulates Its Ideological Platform

  • Victor Yasmann --> An influential senior Kremlin official recently defended a sweeping package of proposed political reforms, saying they protect the system from the "extreme conditions of an unannounced war" and increase President Vladimir Putin's accountability.

In style and substance, presidential-administration deputy head Vladislav Surkov used a late-September interview to signal an open departure from the liberal values that have dominated much of Moscow's stated policy since the fall of communism. Surprisingly, no one within the political opposition bothered to challenge either Surkov's assertions or the premises on which they rest.

Surkov plays a much greater role within the Kremlin than his official title implies. He is among the most ardent ideologues -- and implenters of domestic political projects -- in Putin's administration. Surkov played a key part in the State Duma elections of December 2003, which effectively emasculated the right and left wings of the Russian political spectrum.

He now appears to have taken on the role of political mastermind with respect to Putin's proposed political reforms, as evidenced by his extensive interview in "Komsomolskaya pravda" on 29 September. In that interview, Surkov sought to convince the public that the rationale behind Putin's new political course is solid.

First, Surkov reiterated the government perception that war has been declared on Russia from the outside (see "The Kremlin After Beslan"). He was more precise in his language than Putin has been, however, suggesting that the enemy comprises "interventionists." In the United States, Europe, and the East, Surkov railed, there are "decision makers who are living on the phobias of the Cold War and who see Russia as a potential enemy. They take credit for the nearly bloodless collapse of the Soviet Union and want to further that achievement. Their goal is the destruction of our country."

Second, Surkov identified the theater for this "secret" war: Russia's southern provinces, particularly the Caucasus. "The detonation of our southern borders as a means of weakening Russia has been used repeatedly in the 19th and 20th centuries," he added.

Third, he defined the weapon and other means that the enemy has used against Russia and that Russia itself has provided to the "interventionists." He singled out corruption; criminals, including the "fighters for independence" in the Caucasus; and a "fifth column" within Russia that he described as "people forever lost for partnership." "In a truly besieged country, a fifth column of leftist and rightist radicals has emerged. Apples and lemons are now growing on the same branch," he added. "The pseudo-liberals and genuine Nazis have a lot in common; they have a common hatred for 'Putin's Russia,' as they call it, and common foreign backers. They are sitting on various committees, waiting for 2008 [a presumed reference to the next presidential election] and talking about expediting the defeat of their own country in the war on terrorism." This appears to be a thinly veiled reference to the liberal Yabloko party, Eduard Limonov's leftist National-Bolshevik Party, and Committee 2008, which is headed by chess champion Garri Kasparov.

Last -- perhaps predictably -- Surkov seemed to dismiss any possible resolution of the Chechen dilemma on anything other than Moscow's terms, effectively suggesting that alternatives entail "treason against the state." "I'll let you in on a secret: The Chechen problem, like the problem of world terrorism, has no single, simple solution," he said.

Within this context of militant ideological thinking, Surkov then made his case for Putin's proposed political reforms. He took exception with those who see no links between the terrorism threat and the abolition of direct gubernatorial elections and single-mandate districts. Surkov said such measures will strengthen the country and boost its "immunity from extremist infection."

"Remember, the virus of terrorism has stricken the state at a time when the regions -- with their operatic sovereignty and sickly, disposable political parties -- have been unable to confront chaos in the country," Surkov said. "We experienced a period of neo-feudal fragmentation in the 1990s, and that should not be repeated."

Surkov appeared to be preparing the public for a long campaign, warning that the proposals will not provide a "quick victory over the enemy." But he claimed the moves will increase the soundness of the Russian political system "in the extreme conditions of undeclared war." The reforms would increase the level of Putin's own political responsibility, he added.

"It will bring an end to the competition between the federal center and the regions -- the competition for avoiding accountability for political mistakes and organizational mishaps that have been committed."

The senior Kremlin staffer then defended Putin from accusations that he is using the Beslan school hostage tragedy to strengthen his personal powers and to curb democracy. "Putin is reinforcing the state, not himself, " Surkov said, adding that Putin's popularity rating is high and that he has few problems in his relations with regional leaders. Finally, the new system will require substantial amendments to the constitutions of many subjects of the Russian Federation, Surkov said, so it will come into force only in 2009, after Putin has left office.

The "bottom line" of Putin's program is the "mobilization of the country in the fight against terrorism," Surkov said. "We should all realize that the enemy is at the gates. We need vigilance, solidarity, and the unification of citizens' and the state's efforts."

Surkov's interview thus marks an openly declared departure from the liberal values espoused by the Kremlin in the 1990s and an equally bald-faced shift to the position of those forces within the Russian political class that profess the "ideology of national revanche" (see "The Clandestine Soviet Union"). Is it merely coincidence that Surkov used statements such as "interventionists," which is the term used by the Bolsheviks in 1918-20 to describe Western troops fighting on Russian territory?

But despite the significance of Surkov's bold manifesto, no one from the political opposition went to the trouble of commenting on it. Another Kremlin insider noted that fact: Effective Politics Foundation President Gleb Pavlovskii. Pavlovskii complained that there was little or no public reaction to Putin's proposals, and no counterproposals or rival initiatives, according to an RTR report on 2 October.

"There was no thoughtful reaction, aside from the retrograde, dull reflection: 'Don't touch the old system, we like it.'" Pavlovskii offered that in most advanced countries, the opposition might even go so far as to disagree completely with the government, but it certainly maintains a running commentary on the ruling parties and their policies.

Pavlovskii went on to contribute to Surkov's ideological platform, averring that Russia is indeed "at war" and adding: "Terror is torture by war. It is goes, stops, and goes again." He went on to fuel Surkov's conspiracy theory, suggesting that "groups of politicians in Arab and Western terrorists: Some give them money; others encourage them; and others simply rejoice quietly." "The antiterror coalition is not sincere today," Pavlovskii said. "Every time there is a terrorist attack on Russia, we receive...moral lectures on how we should change our policy, and we are saying, 'Stop it, guys, we are not prepared to tolerate this any longer.'"

Pavlovskii also argued that pervasive corruption -- especially within law enforcement -- is among the strongest levers for terrorism in Russia (see "Between Terror And Corruption").

Then Pavlovskii got to the substance of Putin's proposed reforms, and his implicit criticism of the Russian public, suggesting that strengthening national security will likely lead to increased corruption. "But neither the president nor the government can do anything special to root out corruption," he argued. "It must be national momentum that gets rid of corruption. This momentum can be concentrated in a political party or movement. It is necessary that the whole nation says, 'Yes, there is corruption everywhere [in the world], but we are determined to rid [Russia] of official corruption."