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Russia Report: October 1, 2004

1 October 2004, Volume 4, Number 38
On 28 September, RFE/RL hosted a briefing on the topic "How Stable Is Putin's Russia?" featuring a presentation by RFE/RL Communications Director Donald A. Jensen. "RFE/RL Political Weekly" this week presents a transcript of Jensen's remarks.

By Donald A. Jensen

I wanted to talk about three kinds of change, because I think the issue of continuity and change with the past -- Boris Yeltsin and even to some extent the Soviet past -- is important.

In terms of looking at what Vladimir Putin has done, I would mention three kinds of change. First are policy reforms, and policy reforms occur within the system -- changing expenditures for defense or something else. Second would be organizational-administrative reforms, which would be reorganizing the presidential administration or the Security Council, that sort of thing. Third would be more radical changes, you might call them institutional-structural reforms. And that involves a fundamental shift in the way the system is governed, in how Russia is ruled. Frankly I don't think that for all the hype about all these things that Putin has been doing, that he has done anything more than barely touch the core essence of the system.

Let's take, for example, the appointment of the governors, which is now condemned -- rightly so -- as an antidemocratic measure. One fact that you will recall is that for much of the 1990s, Yeltsin himself appointed the governors. Elections were expressed as something in the constitution, but in fact for much of the period after the constitution was passed the governors were in fact picked by the president.

I would take, for example, the weakly protected property rights, the fact that money and power are constantly divided and re-divided. Well, the oligarchs remain today. There are many more continuities in the system than you read about in the Western press. I think those have to be kept in mind by anyone trying to get a sense of where Russia is going.

The second question is: Who cares about all this? And that's a more difficult question. I would argue that unlike some countries, Russia's domestic developments affect its foreign-policy behavior in a very important way. I could mention the role of the so-called siloviki. While their influence is exaggerated, they do affect the ways Russia behaves on the international stage. There is a growing predominance of members of the security services in key positions in government -- although again that was also true under Yeltsin. It is just more so now. Third, the problems with Chechnya affect Russian foreign policy, whether it is relations with Georgia or Al-Qaeda. Finally, issues such as the failure of military reforms affect Russian behavior. What the Putin administration has very cleverly done, I think, is to in the public forum link its own struggle against Chechnya, for example, to the so-called wider global war on terror. The links between Chechnya and Al-Qaeda, international terrorism, are indirect at best. I think Chechnya is primarily a domestic, internal struggle based on and due to a variety of internal Russian factors.

The third, related problem is: Even if it matters, do we have any levers at all to affect what is going on internally in Russia? I refer you to Strobe Talbot's article yesterday in the "Financial Times." He says: "The West has a huge stake in how Russian democracy evolves in the coming years. If we learned nothing else from the 20th century, it is that the nature of Russia's internal regime determines its external behavior. A Russia that rules its own people by force and edict...makes itself one of the world's problems, rather than a contributor to their solution." While Talbot is partly correct -- these factors do affect Russia's foreign policy -- he is also partly wrong, by assuming that Russia is an evolving democracy -- we've heard that before.

But the point is, even if we agree with Talbot and have concern about the way some of these things are going, it is very hard for policymakers in this country or in Europe to get levers over the way things are going. And that is in many ways the fundamental problem in dealing with Russia for this administration or any other. If you look at American foreign policy over the past decade, this issue of focus -- to what extent does one get involved in internal Russian affairs, is something that is very difficult for the U.S. In the 1990s, it seemed like we were going to make it into Ohio; it didn't turn out to be Ohio, but now we seem to have backed off completely. I would argue that there is a middle ground, that we can at least affect to some extent, although admittedly in an indirect way, some of the way things evolve inside of Russia and in the hope of prodding it into developing into a more responsive, democratic polity.

I recently came across an interesting quotation: "The events we have described occurred in a country that was in many respects unique. Ruled by an absolute monarchy, administered by an all-powerful bureaucracy, and composed of social castes, Russia resembled an oriental despotism. Its international ambitions, however, and the economic and cultural policies which these ambitions necessitated injected into Russia a dynamism that was Western in origin. The contradiction between the static quality of the political and social order and the dynamism of the economy and cultural life produced a condition of endemic tension in the system."

This is Richard Pipes describing Russia in 1905. I raise this for a reason. I do think there is a tension within Russian society between, as Pipes said, the relatively static, bureaucratically authoritarian system today and what clearly are pressures -- social, economic, and cultural -- that come not only from inside the system -- although they aren't expressed articulately or coherently -- but also come from exposure to the West. The question is, given these pressures, where is Russia going to go in the next few years?

Those of you who were at the Carnegie briefing last week on Russian developments heard some of the experts present discuss these more progressive forces within Russian society -- particularly among the younger generation -- and whether they will sooner or later force Russia to change in the direction that a lot of us hope it will. I think there is tension here -- my concern is that, while pressure for change will build up, I do not think it will necessarily result in an outcome that is in a more democratic direction. Lilia Shevtsova has said that today is the first time in history that you have a very, very conservative Russian elite and progressive social forces for change, even if not very organized. I would disagree. I think the same sort of situation existed, as Pipes points out, in 1905. The problem is how does that tension express itself, because I do think that sooner or later, it will.

At Carnegie there was also a very sharp exchange about the values of the younger generation and the fact that a lot of Russians, when you ask them polling questions about democracy and participation and all these kinds of things, they always give the "democratic" answers. Their polling answers would lead you to believe that they are true democrats. This discussion brings us to a systemic problem: How can people who say they believe in democracy vote for an authoritarian president? This is not only an interesting intellectual issue; it is an interesting political issue as well.

Some people might just be telling pollsters what they believe they want to hear. Second, people believe in political values with different degrees of passion. It may well be that they believe in electoral democracy -- and Americans have the same issue when they engage in political participation -- but they may also believe in order and stability more than they believe in values like democracy or elections. Third, it is perfectly possible for Russians to hold contradictory political values at the same time. Just as Americans favor freedom of the press and individual liberties, at the same time they support the incarceration of detainees in Guantanamo without the benefit of a trial. Those are contradictory values and people can hold those. So, again, the issue of expressed political values with the younger generation does not necessarily guarantee a democratic outcome.

I would also finally add that there is a disconnect between a largely unorganized, even if democratic-thinking, middle class in Russian society and its inability to these values in the system. The inability of the system to advance the values and interests of the vast majority of the society -- and here I agree with Pipes -- is causing a build of the system to advance up of tension that sooner or later will change the system. And the question will be whether it will change it in an orderly, more progressive direction or in some other direction. And here we get to the problem of Russian stability.

So, where is this going? I think there are three salient or most likely possibilities, and I'll tell you what I think of each one -- and there's a fourth, sort of wildcard one. First, one least likely possibility is that Russian society under Putin could go -- and don't laugh because this is a serious position held by many people until recently -- could somehow go, and Putin too, in a more democratic direction. I think that's highly unlikely because even if Putin wanted to go in a more progressive, democratic direction I think the constraints on his power within the system -- and by those, I mean inadequate information, bureaucracy, the need to shore up his power base, and other things -- prevent him pushing the system in a democratic direction as we understand that in the next few years.

The second would be the other extreme, a sort of Mussolini variant. And there are many problems with that image, but I think that the chances of Putin becoming a new Stalin or a new Benito, I think, are very low for a lot of reasons, both personal and systemic. Chief among these is that the populace is largely too inert and atomized to support a fascist regime.

The third, I think, would be more of a continuation of the current course, which would be sort of neo-Brezhnevian or Andropovian bureaucratic authoritarianism. In other words, authoritarian but not totalitarian, where the correlation of forces pushes it in this direction: among the Russian elites, preoccupied by maintaining their own status and power, by money flows and increasingly by succession in 2008, if it occurs at all. I think that this scenario is the most likely over the short term. But it is Russia, after all, and you do have the buildup of those tensions I mentioned where the growing, developing society -- not always a democratic growing, developing society -- but whatever they believe, those forces are not contained and channeled and constructively by the system.

This gets into the longer-term problem for Putin and the Russian elites, which is that I do think you have a systemic crisis approaching, both of legitimacy and effectiveness. There are a lot of reasons that societies change or collapse or rise, but I think that one of the unfortunate things about the recent trend toward authoritarianism in Russia is the fact that it raises a legitimacy question for the Russian elites. If all the governors are appointed and if Putin is really the man representing, chosen by the Russian elites, the question becomes how long can the system go on without being popularly de-legitimized and more unstable with the attendant consequences.

The second problem is the question of effectiveness, which is to say: How long can a system that economically looks good on paper, but does not distribute wealth and goods to a large proportion of society continue to do so without encountering a systemic crisis that would destabilize it in some way. The important thing here is how a system is perceived. I don't think we're in either a crisis of legitimacy or effectiveness yet in terms of the perceptions of a large majority of the population. I do think it is a danger, however, and I do think that some of the recent moves by President Putin have pushed the system much more decisively in that direction.

By Victor Yasmann

President Vladimir Putin has taken advantage of the political climate following the tragic school hostage taking in Beslan in early September to accelerate his longstanding political course toward increased authoritarianism. Addressing the country on 13 September in the wake of a series of terrorist attacks that left more than 400 dead, Putin announced that Russia is now at war with international terrorism. He proposed a set of controversial political reforms, including abolishing the direct election of regional governors and the elimination of single-mandate-district representation in the State Duma. He also introduced measures to bolster the Kremlin's military-administrative control throughout the North Caucasus.

However, neither in this speech nor in other statements has Putin acknowledged a connection between Beslan and the long-running war in Chechnya. Instead, he has focused on "international terrorism" and terrorism's "supporters abroad" as the key to understanding the tragedy. However, practically no one outside Putin's administration doubts that the roots of Beslan lie in the Kremlin's policies and tactics in Chechnya. There are also few doubts that the Chechen war is consolidating international terrorism in Russia the same way that the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan activated international Muslim guerrillas.

Many analysts have argued that the continued unwillingness of the Putin administration to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the conflict with so-called moderates within the ranks of the Chechen resistance is bolstering their cause and stimulating destabilization throughout the North Caucasus. No matter who the real organizers of the latest terrorist acts in Russia were, they would certainly not be able to find so many volunteers willing to carry them out if it were not for the devastating war in Chechnya.

The military resistance in Chechnya shows no sign of abating despite the fact that federal forces have managed to eliminate several key field commanders in recent months, including Arbi Baraev, Ruslan Gelaev, Abu Valid, and Khattab. In all, some 20 field commanders have been killed in the past year, according to "Komsomolskaya pravda" on 13 September. About 400 people are currently serving time in Russian prisons for terrorism, while 2,000 others are being sought by the authorities, the paper reported. Many analysts have attributed the continued resistance to radical field commander Shamil Basaev, who has repeatedly slipped from the grip of Russia's special services since he committed his first terrorist act in 1991.

For years now, some voices have asserted that the secret services are not interested in capturing Basaev, who has taken responsibility for the most striking terrorist acts of recent years, including the 1995 seizure of a hospital in Budennovsk, the October 2002 takeover of the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow, and the Beslan school attack this month. Such skeptics argue that the officials in charge of the "antiterrorism operation" in Chechnya and, now, the "war against international terrorism" fear that such a victory would lead to a loss of their funding, influence, and prestige.

Others, including most recently Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, have recalled that Basaev got his start with Abkhazian separatists who were fighting against the Georgian authorities in the early 1990s with the backing of Russian military intelligence (GRU). "Basaev was the hero of the Abkhazian separatists in 1992-93," Saakashvili said on 16 September, responding to comments by Putin about separatism in the CIS, according to on 17 September. "And the blood of Georgian citizens is on his hands. Such people are a threat to Georgia, Russia, and all mankind."

Over the last several years, terrorist activity in Russia has gained a new dimension that reflects a pattern similar to that seen on the international stage. Such practices as the use of female suicide bombers and the targeting of schools have been used by terrorists in India, Sri Lanka, and Israel. In May 1994, a group of Palestinian terrorists captured a school in Maalot, Israel, and held 115 schoolchildren and teachers hostage.

Over the last five months, Russia has experienced a range of terrorist attacks that includes political assassinations, mass guerrilla raids, the downing of civilian aircraft, suicide bombings, and the Beslan hostage taking. In none of these cases did Russia's security forces demonstrate preparedness or inspire confidence that they will be able to prevent similar acts in the future.

On the night of 21-22 June, a group of about 200 gunmen raided the Ingushetian capital of Nazran and took control of the city for about 12 hours. The raid left 92 dead, including 62 officials of the republican Interior Ministry and other security agencies. The raiders seized an Interior Ministry arsenal and captured 300 pistols, 322 submachine guns, and six machine guns. Duma Deputy and former Federal Security Service officer Gennadii Gudkov (Unified Russia) said the raid underscored "the failure, shame, and disgrace of the Russian secret services," reported on 24 June. "How could army intelligence miss the deployment of so many Chechen fighters and how could electronic intelligence fail to intercept their communications?"

Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov posted a similar statement on the party's website ( on 25 June. "Although we have a large military formation and special-services presence in the region, all of a sudden a gang of fighters appears and kills the leadership [of local law enforcement organs]," Zyuganov wrote. "This means that intelligence and the [security] services are working very badly."

Military journalist Vladislav Shurygin went a step further, telling "Komsomolskaya pravda" that such successes indicate that Chechen fighters have agents working within the Russian security services.

On 24 August, two civilian airliners exploded in mid-flight almost simultaneously, killing all 90 passengers and crew aboard. FSB investigators have determined that the disasters were caused by explosions on board the planes, possibly explosive devices set off by Chechen women aboard each plane, Transportation Minister Igor Levitan, the head of the state investigating commission, said.

Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov has said that both women bought their tickets for the flights immediately before departure with the help of a ticket scalper named Armen Artyunov, who allegedly paid a bribe to a Sibir Airline official in exchange for helping one of the women board her flight without being searched. Artyunov and the Sibir official have been arrested. Ustinov also said that both women arrived earlier the same day from Daghestan and were briefly detained by airport security as suspicious people. They were brought to Mikhail Artamonov, the Interior Ministry officer in charge of counterterrorism at the airport, but he released them without examining them. He has also been arrested.

The school hostage taking in Beslan on 1-3 September was the worst terrorist incident in modern Russian history, leaving at least 338 dead and more than 700 injured. In all this year, about 625 Russian citizens have been killed and more than 1,500 injured in terrorist incidents. Since the beginning of the counterterrorism operation in Chechnya in 1999, an estimated 9,000 federal troops have been killed there, "Komsomolskaya pravda" reported on 13 September.

If there is a single factor that determines the ineffectiveness of the Russian security services, it is corruption, military analyst Vladislav Shurygin wrote in "Zavtra," No. 37, this month. Shurygin argued that the main problem with Russia's secret services is that they too closely replicate Russia's corruption-riddled society. The FSB, he wrote, is clumsy, poorly managed, and servile, and pervasive corruption creates an ideal environment for terrorists. Moreover, Shurygin added, "it is not clear to Putin that the 'siloviki' are not the pillar of the state but rather are officials bogged down in intrigues and corruption who long ago forgot their duties."

The media have reported frequently on examples of how this corrupt society facilitated terrorist attacks, including traffic police who accepted bribes in exchange for not inspecting a convoy of vehicles, immigration-service officials taking money to issue travel documents to wanted criminals, corrupt military personnel who are prepared to sell modern weapons and explosives to criminals, or FSB officers who leak information about the work of their agency.

The Russian traffic police have long been identified as one of the most corrupt organizations in Russia, a problem that is particularly bad in the North Caucasus. Traffic-police veteran Batraz Takazov told Regnum on 15 September that a couple of years ago, residents in North Ossetia were so frustrated with systematic corruption by traffic police that they blocked the Transcaucasian Highway in protest. There are 20 checkpoints between Vladikavkaz and the Georgian border and motorists can be forced to pay bribes at each one. Those who pay particularly well can be assured of getting even a police escort that can take you all the way to the border without stopping.

"Komsomolskaya pravda" wrote on 13 September that terrorists are now using increasingly sophisticated weapons and explosives. A few years ago, they used mainly ordnance retrieved from unexploded shells and bombs, while now they use industrial explosives that are normally employed by the special services. The terrorists who attacked Beslan were equipped with the best sniper rifles and even the state-of-the-art Shmel flamethrower, the daily wrote. Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov told TV-Tsentr on 7 September that security officials must be held accountable for Beslan. "We must ask them why the terrorists in Beslan had the best Russian weapons," Luzhkov said.

"Vremya novostei" and "Novye izvestiya" reported on 21 September that police the previous day arrested an FSB border-service warrant officer and two other men who are accused of helping wanted criminals to flee the country. One of the men allegedly roamed Moscow looking for clients, while another, a Palestinian who owns a small tourism company, provided them with false passports and other documents. The FSB officer then allegedly helped the clients to pass through the airport-security checkpoint where he worked. Reportedly, the group took $1,500 for each border crossing. During the arrest, investigators seized 10 blank Russian passports, airplane tickets, and more than 60 stamps of various organizations, including those of FSB border-service checkpoints. Investigators are still trying to determine how many criminals' escapes were abetted by this group.

The situation clearly demonstrates more than simply that Russia's security services are incapable of fighting modern terrorism; it suggests that their ineptitude and corruption are actually stimulating terrorism. As a special-forces officer in the popular new television series "Anti-Killer" said when asked why the terrorists are winning: "Because we are in business, and they are at war."

October: President Vladimir Putin will visit China

October: International forum of the Organization of the Islamic Conference will be held in Moscow

1 October: Deadline for population to select a management company to handle their pension-fund contributions, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 3 September

1 October: Date by which the government will decide whether to sell a controlling stake in Aeroflot, according to Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref

4-8 October: Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly will convene

7 October: President Putin's 52nd birthday

10 October: Mayoral election in Magadan

19 October: State Duma to begin hearings on proposed changes to election legislation

23-26 October: Second anniversary of the Moscow theater hostage crisis

25 October: First anniversary of former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovskii's arrest at an airport in Novosibirsk

28 October: Federation Council to hold a roundtable discussion of proposed election-law amendments.

31 October: Presidential election in Ukraine

November: Gubernatorial election in Pskov and Kurgan oblasts

14 November: Mayoral election will take place in Blagoveshchensk

20 November: Sixth anniversary of the killing of State Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova

22 November: President Putin to visit Brazil

December: A draft law on toll roads will be submitted to the government, according to the Federal Highways Agency's Construction Department on 6 April

December: Gubernatorial elections in Vladimir, Bryansk, Kamchatka, Ulyanovsk, and Volgograd oblasts; Khabarovsk Krai; and Ust-Ordynskii Autonomous Okrug

December: Presidential elections in Marii-El and Khakasia republics

5 December: By-elections for State Duma seats will be held in two single-mandate districts in Ulyanovsk and Moscow

5 December: Gubernatorial election will be held in Astrakhan Oblast

29 December: State Duma's fall session will come to a close

January 2005: President Putin to visit Poland for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

1 February 2005: Former President Boris Yeltsin's 74th birthday

March 2005: Gubernatorial election in Saratov Oblast