Sunday, October 7, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Russians Divided on How and How Much Putin has Mattered

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 7 – When Boris Yeltsin named Vladimir Putin his successor almost 13 years ago, the question in many minds in Russia and the West was “Who is Mr. Putin?” Now, as the incumbent president celebrates his 60th birthday, most of them are trying to define his place in history by asking “What if Putin had not existed?”

            St. Petersburg’s Neva 24 portal asked that question of a number of well-known people and reports today that while they were divided, most of these people say that “the personality of Vladimir Vladimirovich had not played a large role. But nonetheless he had turned out better than a complete idiot” (

            Mikhail Borzykin, head of the Televizor Group, gave “an extremely negative” assessment of Putin’s role, the news service said.  “We had a chance at the beginning of the 2000s to move progressively toward the civilized world, but we missed it and instead mounted a horse which has carried usat a gallup” toward “a neo-Soviet reality.”

            That doesn’t surprise him, Borzukin added. “From the very beginning it seemed to me that to appoint to the presidence a KGB officer, a spy who is essentially a destroyer rather than a builder was dangerous. That’s how it has turned out.”

            Andrey Stolyarov, a futurologist, gave a more neutral evaluation, the portal continued.  “However strange it may sound,” he suggested, “any other literate man would have coped in [Putin’s place] more or less the same.  Of course, it a complete idiot had come, it would have been much worse.”  But almost anyone “would have achieved approximately the same results.”

            That is because, Stolyarov argued, that by the early 2000s, the impact of earlier reforms had become obvious and because rising oil prices provided Russia with “a golden rain.”  “In such a situation, it wasn’t necessary to do anything. The main thing was not to commit an obvious stupidity.”

            Boris Kagarlitsky, the head of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements, gave a similar response. “People make history but within circumstances that are objectively given. If there hadn’t been Putin, a lot would have been different. But he did not create the situation and the social-political order” within which Russia existed and he worked.

            “On the contrary,” Kagarlitsky said, “this order found Putin.”

            Ilya Stogov, a writer, went even further. “The absence of Putin in Russian history wouldn’t have changed anything.” That is something that his opponents don’t understand and instead stupidly make as their only program “’Putin Must Go,’” instead of recognizing that the system must be changed.

            “In 1999-2000, an epoch changed. The Yeltin decade had to end somehow. If Stapashin had come, it would have ended as well but it would have been still more ridiculous because Stepashing is an idiot. If it had been Kiriyenko, it would also have been the same but with a far eastern accent because he is a kendo master.”

            Aleksandr Dugin, the Eurasian theorist, told Neva24 that “the savior of Russia in fact was not Vladimir Vladimirovich but his predecessor” because Yeltsin chose Putin. Had he chosen almost anyone else from “the liberal camp … then Russia would have disintegrated.” The North Caucasus would be gone and “probably the Middle Volga as well.”

            But “having fulfilled” the task of ending the disintegration of Russia “during the first two years” of his presidency, Dugn argued, “Putin stopped and the last ten years of his administration became a new period of stagnation. If Putin had not been there in those years, we would have returned to the 1990s.

            “With Putin, the existence of Russia was guaranteed,” Dugin added, “But what kind of existence is another question.  Today Putin is the synonym for the existence of Russia. But he is not the synonym of our historical existence.” Only if he can find a way to that end will be pass into history as “a great Russian ruler.”

            Interfax provides comments about Putin and Russia by two other Russian political analysts who supplement the comments just given, Gleb Pavlovsky, the president of the Effective Politics Foundation, and Igor Yurgens, director of the Institute of Contemporary Development (

            Like many of those Neva24 surveyed, Pavlovsky suggested that Putin is often given credit for simply using the income from high oil prices to win support, although mor than many of them he gives the president full credit for bringing peace to the Caucasus and getting Russia out of a war there.

            During his first two terms and during the Medvedev presidency when Putin ran things as prime minister, Pavlovsky continues, Putin had many achievements. But now, the situation is changing, and Putin must change Russia in order to be successful.He must end “the deformation of Russian business” and end the rentier nature of the wealthy.

            It is not clear that Putin understands these challenges or has a program or the personnel to deal with them, Pavlovsky argues. “a half year after the elections, he doesn’t know on whom to rely. He doesn’t know what program to propose.” He is moving slowly or not at all, “and dragging out this pause is very dangerous.”

            Yurgens, for his part, suggests that on this birthday, Putin is “under strong pressure from groups” who want Russia to move backward toward the 19th century.  Whether they will succeed is not clear, but the pressure for “Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality” is today very, very strong.”

            Putin can change course but where he will go next is unclear. He has gone through four different incarnations, Yurgens suggests. In the first years he presented himself as a European liberal. Then, from 2004 to 2008, he was a statist. After 2008, he “took a pause for himself and the country.” Now, he is again under pressure to manifest his conservatism and traditionalism.”

            “The stability which Putin chose at one time now is illusory,” Yurgen says. “The president must choose his goals and strategy.”  He can be “a leader of progress, or he can maintain the so-called stability or he can become the leader of regression.” If the latter, “the final result [for him and for Russia] is predetermined.”

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