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Russia: Analysis -- Vote Is Merely Putin Referendum

By Donald Jensen

Prague, 24 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Sunday's vote for the Russian presidency is less an open, competitive election than a referendum on acting President Vladimir Putin's leadership. The major question is not whether Putin will win, but whether he will do so in the first round. A decisive victory will help him consolidate power so he can move toward achieving his goals of reforming the economy and rebuilding the Russian state.

Public-opinion surveys give Putin more than 50 percent of the vote. This rating is more than twice that of his nearest rival, Communist Party leader Gennadi Zyuganov. Putin's large lead has taken much of the suspense out of the campaign and prompted concern the turnout could be less than the 50 percent needed to make the election valid. Zyuganov, like the other candidates, has served largely as sparring partner.

Putin's popularity is largely based on public perceptions of his conduct of the Chechnya war. National television, much of which is controlled by the Kremlin, has presented the conflict as a success. Moreover, Putin's awkward, spare campaign style -- which Kremlin media handlers have tried to portray as a sign he means business -- has actually proved an asset and contrasts favorably with that of former President Boris Yeltsin. It has given Putin a negative charisma that has convinced voters he is far more capable than his predecessor of dealing with Russia's problems.

The election is the latest step -- though not the only or most important one -- in a transition that began last year, when Russian elites dependent on the Kremlin for their political and financial viability began to explore presidential succession scenarios. This strategy included: naming Putin prime minister to give him the advantages of incumbency; the political destruction of former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov -- at the time the leading presidential hopefuls; military action in the North Caucasus to galvanize public opinion; and a manipulated State Duma election campaign designed to ensure a pro-Kremlin majority in the parliament's lower house.

The plan succeeded. As a result, Yeltsin's resignation at the end of last year was not a genuine transfer of power, but a way to prolong and revitalize the elite-dominated system that has ruled Russia for much of the past decade.

As is often noted, much about Putin's views and earlier career are unknown. Nevertheless, a close check of his record gives indications of the kind of president he would be.

Putin is well trained in the school of Yeltsin-era politics, where money, personality and political power are inextricably intertwined, corruption is in the eye of the beholder and the ends justify the means. Putin was one of a generation of former KGB officers who burrowed into the country's new political and commercial structures, in the process blurring the distinction between public interest and private gain, national security and democratic openness. He spent a period in the St. Petersburg administration, where he was implicated in the corruption that marred the city's commercial activities. He also managed an election campaign for a tainted mayor that was characterized by dirty tactics -- from death threats to lies about attendance figures during a crucial vote.

Putin then moved to Yeltsin's presidential administration, a bloated, corrupt bureaucracy that managed the Kremlin's huge business empire and is under investigation by Swiss law enforcement officials for corruption. Putin recently defended Pavel Borodin, former head of the administration, from the charges. By contrast, Putin has been quick to brand as "traitors" and "criminals" those who disagree with him.

During Putin's tenure as head of the Federal Security Services, the successor to the KGB, that agency imprisoned activists Aleksandr Nikitin and navy captain Grigory Pasko for trying to bring attention to environmental damage caused by Russian naval vessels. Last year, when corruption allegations against Kremlin insiders brought by Procurator General Yuri Skuratov threatened Yeltsin's impeachment, it was Putin's FSB which led the campaign to smear Skuratov.

Putin's public statements, intentionally minimized during the campaign to broaden his appeal, have often been contradictory and show his lack of political experience. They also suggest Putin has not yet decided some key issues. But taken as a whole, his comments and his conduct as interim president suggest that while Putin is market-oriented and vaguely supportive of democratic values, above all he seeks to re-centralize state power at home and re-vitalize Russia abroad.

"Beautiful, powerful, very obedient," was how Putin characterized the SU-27 aircraft he flew in on Monday (March 20) in a campaign stunt. That is how he also might describe his ideal Russian state. Putin has shown he is uncomfortable with political pluralism, especially when it interferes with attaining his objectives. Putin has also made it clear that he will not tolerate press criticism of the Chechen war.

A January deal between the pro-Putin Unity party and the communists temporarily alienated many liberal and centrists deputies and left the legislature largely under his control. Presidential candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- whose supporters regard Putin favorably -- has been ruled on and off the ballot, apparently based on the latest Kremlin calculation of whether Putin needs Zhirinovsky's electorate to put him over the 50 percent barrier he needs to win on the first round.

In foreign policy, there are strong continuities with the Yeltsin era. On the one hand, Putin seems to believe Russia's long-term security and economic interests lay in ties to the West. He has received credit for renewing contacts with NATO -- though he opposes further expansion of the alliance. But the thaw actually began during the waning months of the Yeltsin administration last summer and is moving toward the status quo that existed before the Kosovo war.

Putin also supports "Start Two" treaty ratification along with adherence to the 1972 ABM Treaty. On the other hand, Putin has continued to cultivate relations with China, Iran and Iraq, so far more skillfully than Yeltsin. His centralizing inclinations are evident in relations with the Commonwealth of Independent States, where he has moved to strengthen ties with the former Soviet republics under the guise of "fighting terrorism."

On economics, Putin has called for land and tax reform, support for small businesses, and greater foreign investment. His team of free-market economists will present an economic strategy for the government next month. At the same time, under Putin the state probably would retain its role in the "natural monopolies" -- such as oil and natural gas -- where it can earn large revenues. It is likely to remain influential, as well, in the military industrial complex and other areas of "strategic interest."

Despite being all but assured of election, Putin is not yet in control of the forces that brought him to power. Although there has been a partial realignment of political forces in the Kremlin, the "Family" -- the retinue of family members, cronies, and courtiers which hung around Yeltsin for years -- is masterminding Putin's campaign.

Evidence also suggests Putin does not yet have the full support of the power ministries. The FSB, for example, appears to be divided between holdovers who have long served in Moscow and newcomers Putin is bringing in from St. Petersburg. Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, not Putin, was reportedly the presidential choice of some top officers. Indeed, Putin's clumsy handling of RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitsky's detention earlier this year repeatedly gave the impression that the acting president was not fully in charge.

Putin has tried to strengthen his political base by bringing in loyalists and forming effective coalitions on some issues. However, his hold is far from secure. He was able to improve ties with NATO despite the objections of the military, which is more autonomous than at any time in recent years. But it is unclear whether the campaign in Chechnya would stop even if Putin ordered an end to hostilities -- at least without the acting president giving concessions to the military on other issues.

Despite public promises to liquidate the business oligarchs, none of them has been banished from the inner circle. In fact, several moguls are financing Putin's campaign. Putin was unable -- or, during the election season, perhaps unwilling -- to stop a recent aluminum deal in Siberia which further enriched magnate Roman Abramovich.

With the momentum from a decisive win in the elections, Putin probably would move quickly to address Russia's problems and fill in the many blank spots in his program. For his image of competence to endure, he must bring the Chechnya fighting to a politically acceptable conclusion, improve the legal basis for economic activity, and show at least symbolic progress in attacking corruption. In that regard, public cooperation with foreign law-enforcement investigations such as the Bank of New York case will do much to establish his credibility.

Should Putin continue his pressure on the press and the country's weak representative institutions, however, he risks damaging the most important gains of the Yeltsin era. As political scientist Thomas Remington has pointed out, the answer to a breakdown of legal order is not granting the state more power. Giving law-enforcement authorities broad, extra-legal powers and restricting civil rights usually undermines the respect for law even further.

But a popular mandate in Russia has far less importance than in the West. The most important politics is that of the elites. Even when ordinary Russians are aroused to vote they generally lapse back quickly into passivity. Moreover, unlike Yeltsin's rise to power, Putin has so far shown no ability to mobilize the population as a way of settling inter-elite feuding.

Thus, it is doubtful Putin will be able to govern without strong support in the power ministries, and among some oligarchs and regional leaders. At the same time, he must expand his base by packing the new government with loyalists. Such moves will almost inevitably threaten long-entrenched interests -- press reports already have suggested several business barons hope Putin is not elected until the second round so that he will be more manageable. It is how he manages these conflicts that holds the fate of his presidency.