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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Putin's Bet

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 10 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's newly enunciated priorities represent an explicit updating of the ideas of Petr Stolypin, the tsarist prime minister who tried to recoup the power and authority the Russian state had lost in the 1905 revolution and who attempted to revive the national economy before World War I by using state power to promote individual initiative.

In Putin's address to the nation on Saturday, Stolypin was the only individual the current Russian president mentioned by name, and Putin's reference to his tsarist predecessor provides significant clues as to how Putin views his current challenges as well what measures he will adopt to meet them. But this reference also has the effect of highlighting just how difficult Putin's task in fact is.

At the beginning of his remarks, which were delivered to the Federal Assembly, Putin said that "we do not always succeed in combining patriotic responsibility for the country's future with what Stolypin once described as civil freedoms." He then suggested that this is "why it is still so difficult to find a way out of false conflicts between the values of personal freedom and the interests of the state."

Like Stolypin, Putin argues that Russia risks not only political and demographic collapse but also the danger of falling ever further behind the world's advanced economic powers and becoming ever more dependent on "international loans and favors from the leaders of the world economy."

"We cannot put up with this situation," Putin said, echoing the words of Stolypin 90 years ago, because, according to Putin, such an arrangement raises the question of whether "we will be able to survive as a nation and as a civilization" or whether other countries will be able to "infringe" on Russia's "sovereign rights under the pretext of humanitarian operations."

Given this diagnosis of the problem -- one Stolypin made of the Russian Empire nearly a century ago -- Putin comes up with analogous prescriptions: promoting economic growth by relying on the most entrepreneurial elements in society, rebuilding state power at the expense of the regions and society at large, and justifying both in the name of patriotism and even nationalism.

Like Stolypin, Putin focuses on the economy but largely for political reasons. He calls for further liberalization of the marketplace, removing the state from some of the spheres in which it is active while building it up where the state now is weak. And he urges changes in the country's regulatory, tax, and social welfare arrangements that will benefit the most entrepreneurial elements.

Such changes, Putin clearly believes, will ultimately benefit everyone. But at least in the short term, they seem certain to generate opposition both among those in the elite who may see his moves as taking their current benefits away and those in the broader population who may conclude that Putin has little interest in taking care of the least advantaged groups.

That combination of elite anger and popular unrest may prove to be as much an obstacle to Putin now as it was to Stolypin at the end of the tsarist period.

Also like Stolypin, Putin seeks to rebuild the power of the state. Stolypin cut back the power of the tsarist Duma and suppressed the autonomy of Finland; Putin seeks to transform the current Federal Assembly as well as rein in the regions -- all in the name of restoring what he views as the legitimate and necessary powers of the executive over state and society.

Moreover, Putin does all this in the name of freeing many elements of society from what he suggests are the false freedoms they think they enjoy. He argues that even though "censorship and interference in the activities of the media are prohibited by law," in today's Russia, "journalistic freedom has become a tasty morsel for politicians and weighty financial groups" and "a convenient instrument in the inter-clan struggle."

And he says that a strong Russian state needs strong political parties to help guide the state and protect human rights, in place of the weak parties that currently compete for the attentions of a weak state. Indeed, Putin explicitly rejects the creation of "another party of bureaucrats that sucks up to the authorities and even more tries to replace the authorities."

While many may accept Putin's critique just as many accepted Stolypin's analogous arguments, few who believe in democracy and political liberty are likely to be entirely comfortable with his prescriptions: an expanded role for the state in the media in order to break the power of the oligarchs, and a state-defined approach to the building of civil society and political parties.

But it is the third parallel between Putin and Stolypin that could prove to be the most disturbing. Like his tsarist predecessor, Putin cloaks his arguments in appeals to patriotism and the defense of Russia's uniqueness. Under Stolypin, these appeals sometimes were used by others to justify the actions of extreme nationalistic and openly anti-Semitic groups. And Putin's language, recent events suggest, could have a similar impact.

If that happens, the Russian president may have to choose between greater coercion or reaching out to those political groups in the regions and in the capital which he now seeks to ignore. Either action could quickly reduce the likelihood -- as it did for Stolypin -- that betting on the strong in Russia will prove to be a winning wager.
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