August 28, 2009
Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Ten Years of Putin
*Introduced by Vladimir Frolov *

Russia Profile

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Ethan Burger, Sergei Roy, Andrei Tsygankov 

*August 2009 marks ten years since Vladimir Putin appeared on Russia’s national stage as the last of President Boris Yeltsin’s prime ministers. Ever since then, the Russian political system and the Russian national psyche have been focused on Putin, who has gradually turned into a public figure of international scale. In 2012 he will have a chance to return to the Kremlin for another six to 12 years, but will and should he do so? Will Russia be better off with another decade of Putin? What is, if there ever was one, Putin’s “exit strategy”?*

Putin has ruled Russia with a steady iron hand, defeating the militant Chechen insurgency, bringing the regional baron-governors to heel, gradually rebuilding a functioning Russian state, destroying the oligarchic grip on power and resources and restoring the people’s confidence in the country and its future.

Putin returned Russia to the table of global politics as a serious player who can make its voice heard in a variety of ways, often devoid of diplomatic niceties.

Domestically, Putin squeezed out his political opponents to the margins of Russian politics (driving some die-hards into exile or even prison), while engineering a return to an essentially one-and-a-half party system which leaves no room for radical opponents of the regime but tolerates muted dissent.

This allowed Putin to engineer a brilliant political succession to one of his closest friends and a political loyalist, President Dmitry Medvedev, while allowing Putin himself return to the position of a powerful prime minister where his climb to the pinnacle of Russian power began ten years ago.

Life has come full circle and in 2009, just as in 1999, Putin the prime minister is fighting a deepening economic recession, dwindling government revenues and growing budgetary deficits, a new militant insurgency in the Caucasus, and technological disasters on a massive scale (the Kursk submarine in 2000, the hydro-electric power plant in Siberia in 2009).

In addition, there are signs of cracks developing in his relationship with his successor Medvedev, who has begun to assert his presidential power and is increasingly pushing his own political agenda which at times conflicts with Putin’s

Internationally, he remains a powerful public figure who retains enormous influence, particularly in the former Soviet Union and in Western Europe, but he is being quietly nudged away as “a man of the past” by the Barack Obama administration in Washington, which has placed all the bets on Medvedev.

But in Russia he remains as popular as ever, and is viewed by many Russians as the nation’s Savior who needs to return to the presidency to steady the rolling ship again.

This is clearly an option that Putin can exercise in 2012, staying in the Kremlin for another two six-year terms until 2024. But will he? And should he, really? Will Russia be better off with another ten to fifteen years of Putin? Was he right in staying on as prime minister in 2008, when he handed over the Presidency to Medvedev? Looking back, was it not a huge blunder that could now destroy his otherwise great legacy? Russia clearly made great strides under the first ten years of Putin, but is it really a guarantee that things would turn out as well in the future? What is, if there ever was one, Putin’s “exit strategy”?

Professor Andrei P. Tsygankov, International Relations/Political Science, San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA:

Frolov largely gave an accurate characterization of Putin's remarkable achievements. With him at the helm, Russia is not likely to go through another revolution or become destabilized to the point of dissolution in the manner of the 1990s. Because of Putin’s experience, popularity and special ties with the security class, Medvedev will still need him in order to govern successfully.

But what if Putin, for whatever reasons, is no longer in power? This is the central problem and, until it is solved, a revolution remains institutionally possible in Russia. A political reform is necessary to change the system from that of Yeltsin’s design to one that has historically worked in Russia. The central task for Russia now is to foster a new political elite that will be alien to the oligarchic instincts of selling the country away. Putin set the right example, but institutionally he has not made any progress. This is why the oligarchy has survived and in some aspects even gotten stronger on his watch.

In addition to a strong presidential power and popular elections, the state would do well to institute a permanent council with prerogatives of preserving territorial integrity, sovereignty and security of the country. Russia has had historical experiences of building strong advisory institutions such as the Boyar Duma, the State Council or even the Central Committee under the Soviets that worked as containers of the nation's elite. Serious thinking must be given to dividing powers between the elected "tsar" and the new "aristocracy." Putin himself might become the head of the new Security Council, with revised ability to influence policymaking and the reproductive mechanism.

Sergei Roy, Editor, <>:

A sensible if not too modest assessment of Putin’s achievements in the past ten years is said to be simple: he proved to be the Savior of the Nation. Indeed, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, all through the disastrous 1990s, Russia was inexorably sliding toward further collapse, of which Chechnya and the August 1998 financial meltdown were but the most visible signs, while the will to restore the country economically and as a major player on the international stage was the least of its elite’s concerns: it was too busy grabbing chunks of property and power and never letting go, in true après nous le déluge spirit.

My own view is somewhat different from the above: it was the nation that saved itself by producing someone like Putin and his siloviki. With Shamil Basaev starting to put into effect plans for an Islamic Caliphate from the Caspian to the Black Sea, the situation had some features in common with the start of the war in 1941, which pushed into the limelight marshals like Georgy Zhukov, Ivan Konev, Konstantin Rokossovsky, and others. That was what happened to Putin: in true Russian style, when pushed to the wall, he ended up by smearing his opponents over various walls and floor.

This line about “walls and floor” actually comes from an article of mine entitled “Russian Ethos in War and Peace” written in 1996, long before Putin’s appearance in the public arena. There, I expressed confidence that some such development was inevitable: “As I see it, the Russian ethos will manifest its workings in the choices of leaders it makes. Whenever a choice presents itself between a more tolerant, peaceful and yielding position, on the one hand, and an intolerant, resentful and tough one, on the other, the populace will go for the latter, even if it is basically inclined toward the former. It feels that there is a time to suffer loss and defeat and there is a time to recoup the losses, and that the pendulum is now swinging toward this second half of the cycle.”

It is pleasant to see one’s prediction come true quite literally. This is offset, though, by the fact that when Putin came, it took some time to recognize him for what he was. I even wrote an angry article about Yeltsin spitting in the eye of the nation by appointing yet another of his creatures premier. But I was then in good, or at least numerous company. I remember stopping at the Duma to talk to a deputy, General of the Army N-v, for whom I then entertained certain hopes. When I mentioned Putin to him, he exploded: “What are you talking about? Come December, there will be no Putin, none of the damn setup…” Like myself, the general erred, but only in regard to Putin: the “damn setup” of the Yeltsin era was eventually buried – by none other than Putin.

Now the Putin era is said to be over, too, and some “pundits” are already talking of Putin retiring into a semi-private life in 2012, satisfied with the position of, say, chair of the Olympic Committee, while Dmitry Medvedev continues as a “great president” (Gleb Pavlovsky’s phrase). All I can say is, they are reckoning without the people of Russia. I am sure that come 2012, there will be a chorus of various voices calling on Putin to take on again the country’s highest executive post. Medvedev is ok as a substitute, but Putin is the genuine article, that’s what the gut feeling of the Russian people is – if I fathom it right. Putin’s formal position as head of the country’s strongest political party is not to be lightly dismissed, either.

Russia continually exists in the survival mode, beset by domestic misfortunes (like the most recent power plant disaster or the demographic one) and external pressures. So it will need a Putin-like figure at the helm – at least in the foreseeable future.

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC:

I frankly cannot accept many of the premises set forth in the introduction above. Undoubtedly, former President/Prime Minister Vladimir Putin set the Russian state in a new direction -- undoing what he perceived as Yeltsin's misguided policies; but what I believe was called for was improved implementation of many existing domestic initiatives, improved relations with numerous foreign countries (other than Belarus, China, Iran and Venezuela), and free debate about the problems facing the country -- not neo-imperialism (which Great Britain and the United States now recognize can be very costly).

Russia appears to be on a new course that in all likelihood will create an existential crisis of mammoth proportions for the country at some point in the future. This may have catastrophic consequences for the Russian people and for global political stability. I will not contest the fact that for a large number of Russians, life has improved in a material sense. Nor will I quibble that from the perspective of one with a Soviet-like world view, it has been a positive development that Putin ended Russia’s "humiliation" following the break-up of the Soviet Union by increasing Russia's role on the world stage.

Yet, the Putin era in my view will be seen as one of lost opportunities. I believe that history will show things to be quite different than what many regard as the conventional wisdom. Putin has ruled Russia with a steady but iron hand -- while this is the common view, it is not necessarily the reality. Putin has sought to recentralize the Russian state, but its very size means that the power of the local leaders has not been reduced as much as commonly thought. The Russian president may appoint the regional governors and the Federal Assembly may have been robbed of independent power, but local bureaucrats still wield tremendous power (though they have less wealth than earlier). Largely, these individuals have learned to be more discreet in their actions and have been willing to accept federal control over Russian natural resources.

Putin is also credited with defeating a militant Chechen insurgency, but the conflict in the Northern Caucasus region has simply taken on a new form. Indeed, it is spreading. If one were to list the number of attacks against the authorities and civilians (including terrorist bombings aboard aircraft), it is obvious that the insurgency is not defeated.

Supposedly, Putin brought regional baron-governors to heel – yes, but only at certain levels and in certain spheres of the economy. Moscow's control over the Russian Far East and parts of Siberia is indeed quite limited, and the central authorities are afraid to exercise greater control out of fear of the consequences of failing.

He is thought to be gradually rebuilding the functioning Russian state. The state may have more employees, but despite greater power in the hands of the siloviki, crime rates continue to be high in the country (probably rising), and infrastructure continues to deteriorate as in the Leonid Brezhnev years.

Likewise, Putin is credited with destroying the oligarchic grip on power and resources. This has largely been accomplished, but for whose benefit?

I urge the readers of this panel to read the recently published United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Report for the Russian Federation. The report was prepared largely by Russian experts. Appropriately, its title is “Russia Facing Demographic Challenges.” The report attempts to analyze the main aspects of the most urgent demographic challenges, to offer analysis of causes and to highlight certain constructive axes of socioeconomic policy, which can serve to reduce mortality rates, improve the present birth rate, regulate migration flows and, at the same time, to alleviate adverse consequences of demographics.

The report has a cautious tone. Interested persons should read the numerous articles written about what the data means for the future of Russia. Some (but not me) tend to dismiss the views of Western specialists such as Paul Goble, Murray Feshbach and Marshall Goldman (to name a few) as to the implications of the report. Fortunately, the report is available in Russian and a few searches on Rambler and Yandex for the opinions of leading Russian authorities cannot be as easily ignored.

It appears that the Russian political leadership and top levels of the government are not willing to enter into a public dialog with Russian and international experts in these areas, and to respond as needed. Nor will viable political opposition be tolerated, as if the expression of alternative views is a sign of weakness.

Only when a rejuvenated leadership is willing to enter into a dialog with emboldened Russian legislators, journalists and members of the Russian civil society, and recognize the necessity to adopt new policies and devote resources appropriate to the country's demographic and environmental challenges, will it be possible for Russia to avoid a new "time of troubles."

Russia begs for statesmen to lead the country out of the impending abyss – these individuals exist (some even hold senior positions), but it seems that they lack the necessary courage and imagination. Little positive will be achieved by Russia if it continues set on intimidating its neighbors (e.g. Georgia and Ukraine) – it might actually need the assistance of the numerous countries that it has been alienating in recent years.

Vladimir Belaeff, President, Global Society Institute, Inc., United States:

Putin’s ten years at the top of national government are not exceptional. We are presently mourning Edward Kennedy, who had been a U.S. Senator for 46 years, and even this tenure is not the longest for American politicians.

Putin has accomplished a lot for Russia – the country is more stable, more prosperous and better attuned to its international interests than when he first assumed governance. This obvious progress might be unacceptable to some in principle, but one should consider the consequences for the world from an extreme destabilization or fragmentation of a nuclear power, possessing thousands of “city-killer” warheads. This scenario – though unthinkable for most – was not so far-fetched, if Russia’s trends of the mid to late 1990s had not changed. It may be galling to some, but in reality, in 1999 Putin was the right man at the right time (maybe a trifle late, actually) for everyone.

The reality is that by 1999, projects of the 1990s – the implementation of economic dogma of the Chicago School and of political utopia – not only had failed, but also destroyed the charm and prestige of their proponents in Russia – domestic and imported. This is the true cause of the continuing unpopularity of movements like Yabloko, the Union of Right Forces and other such ventures.

As a result of Russia’s progress in the past ten years, Putin and Medvedev enjoy a genuinely high and steady approval rating with Russia’s citizens. This reality should be relevant to the active opponents of Russia’s present government – they are working “against the grain” of fundamental Russian public opinion.

Russia’s handling of the global financial and economic crisis of 2008 and 2009 under the Putin-Medvedev tandem has been successful at present. As a result, despite a contraction in the GDP and a projected budget deficit (the first in many years), Russia’s Current Account Balance (CAB) for 2008 was in fifth place and positive, at plus $68 billion (the U.S. CAB in 2008 was last, in 162 place, and negative, at minus $747 billion), inflation is projected at 13 percent, foreign currency and precious metal reserves are growing and replacing the costs of fighting the crisis, sovereign debt is very low, the ruble is stable and Russia remains the seventh largest creditor nation of the United States. Equity indices have recovered much of their pre-crisis value; one must note that Moscow’s exchanges are a micro-component by value in Russia’s economic output (unlike their Western analogues). Therefore, an “equity index crash” in Russia does not unequivocally signify a “collapse of the economy.” This observation also applies to the reported “high corporate debt,” which is two thirds ruble-denominated and in the worst case is not likely to experience a 100 percent default rate.

Terrorism and technological disasters are tragic in the loss of human lives and spectacular in nature, and are challenges that must be addressed. How relevant these are to the results and prospects Putin’s tenure per se is debatable.

The most important result of Putin’s experience in power so far is that he and his team have demonstrated a particular algorithm of governance to Russia’s citizens, which is effective and shows consistent, positive results. Russia’s structural problems remain very large and require decades of intense government effort. Putin has presented his compatriots with a model that they approve; Russia’s democratic processes will demand that future leaders – whether Putin himself, or Medvedev, or anyone else – perform in an identical manner. This is the most important and lasting consequence of the past ten years.