Putin’s power play keeps the West guessing

Vladimir Putin personifies that magical moment when Russia went from being a crippled, post-Soviet state, to a relatively healthy, modern nation. Many will never forgive him for that.

But before we understand what exactly it is that unnerves the West about Vladimir Putin, and his potential return to the Russian presidency, it is necessary to understand the political atmosphere in both the United States and in Russia just before his sudden rise to power.

Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was suffering the first pangs of hubris, that intoxicating, blinding elixir that so often accompanies world leaders to the graveyard of empires. Unfortunately, hubris rarely disappears on its own accord, but rather advances to the dangerous delusions-of-grandeur stage, which naturally leads to arrogance, poor judgment, and even criminality, characteristics that were clearly rampant in the Bush Era.

In the Post-Cold War atmosphere of heady triumphalism, one American academician, Francis Fukuyama, was even confident enough to publish a book entitled, “The End of History and the Last Man (1992),” which pronounced the victory of western democracy.

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War,” gushed Fukuyama, “or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Indeed, according to his over-rosy assessment, there was nothing left for the West to do but sit back in a chaise lounge, sip pink champagne and watch as the rapacious corporations casually devoured the formerly communist markets of the East.

Meanwhile, as the West was snorting heavily off the mirror of power, Russia was struggling on life support, receiving mega-dollar injections courtesy of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The high-interest loans from these organizations carried an expensive quid pro quo: in return for buckets of cash, Russia was forced to sit patiently as the experts from these organizations twisted and turned the Russian economy into unnatural shapes. The consequences of this reckless “reform” became evident with the total catastrophic collapse of the rouble in August 1998.

Russia’s dire economic problems were compounded by the ongoing crisis in Chechnya, high-level political corruption and a general national malaise not known for many centuries. Back in the West, analysts were penning hundreds of self-important articles that asked the question, “Who lost Russia?” as if it was their landmass to lose in the first place.

“President Yeltsin… never adequately tackled the monopolies,” cried the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. “Never tackled the military-industrial complex, and did not stop the huge deficit spending that ran up the debt and ultimately caused the economic collapse.”

But faster than any think tank could have predicted all this began to change on New Years Eve 1999 when Boris Yeltsin announced his retirement and Vladimir Putin, a relatively unknown former KGB officer and head of the FSB, was named Acting President of the Russian Federation. The Russian stock market, as if sensing the intelligence of the choice, surged 17 percent on the news.

Almost immediately, Putin began to do the very things that “the West” accused Russia of ignoring during the Yeltsin years: the business faction that had entrenched itself behind the Kremlin walls during the riotous 90s was shown the door; after much bloodshed and sacrifice, Chechnya came to enjoy a hard-earned calm; while the Russian military, in the midst of a lengthy reform, won back its morale and strength.

Most importantly, the Russian economy under the Putin administration recorded real gains of an average 7 percent per year, eventually making it the seventh largest country in the world in terms of purchasing power. By 2007, Russia could boast that its Gross Domestic Product had already exceeded that of the entire landmass of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in 1990.

During Putin’s two-term presidency, industry increased by 75 percent, while real incomes more than doubled. The monthly salary of the average Russian worker went from $80 to almost $600. According to the IMF, from 2000 to 2006, the volume of consumer credit increased by almost 50 percent, as the middle exploded from 8 million to 55 million. Finally, the number of Russian families living below the poverty line decreased from 30 percent in 2000 to around 14 percent in 2008.

This incredible rebound could not be simply explained by historically high oil prices, although that factor certainly allowed Russia to extricate itself from its doldrums far faster than otherwise would have been possible. Furthermore, after 1999, there was really no place for Russia to go but straight up.

But as a recent article by President Medvedev makes clear, there is still a long, long way for Russia to go.

“Every year there are fewer and fewer Russian,” Medvedev wrote. “Alcoholism, smoking, traffic accidents, the lack of availability of many medical technologies, and environmental problems take millions of lives. And the emerging rise in births has not compensated for our declining population.”

“To sum up,” Medvedev wrote, “an inefficient economy, semi-Soviet social sphere, fragile democracy, negative demographic trends, and unstable Caucasus represent very big problems, even for a country such as Russia.”

So despite Putin’s seemingly supernatural powers, Russia is still not clear of the forest.

Despite these problems, however, the looming “specter of Putin” continues to drive the American think tanks and political pundits crazy. It was far more satisfying and perhaps even profitable when Russia, the former Cold War enemy, was weak and stagnating. With every sign of Russia’s decline and fall, America felt its newly attained “sole superpower” status all the more intensely.

In many ways, Putin, by lifting Russia out of its swamp of Soviet proportions, dampened America’s superpower party; although greatly weakened, the West understood that there was another power on the planet, led by a cunning judo expert, who could help derail America’s professed unilateral ambitions.

After the second term of his presidency duly expired, Putin – surprising the critics who had expected him to change the Russian Constitution to allow another term in office – passed the baton of power to the lawyer Dmitry Medvedev, an equally capable man who nevertheless must defend the legitimacy of his position on a regular basis. This gesture alone (which was nearly identical to how Gordon Brown came to power in the UK following Tony Blair’s retirement) suggests that Putin has no real desire to complicate the election process, which would only serve to provide foreign politicians, analysts and pundits with a new stockpile of ammunition for upbraiding Russia.

After all, not even US President Barack Obama could resist taking a pot shot at Russia’s most popular politician. In July, before his first visit to Moscow, he hurled an unexpected and inexplicable broadside at the Prime Minister, perhaps hoping to throw the Russian side off balance.

“The old Cold War approach to US-Russian relations is outdated,” Obama told the Associated press. “Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new.”

Putin responded, “We are standing firmly on both feet and always look to the future.”

Although Russia’s next presidential election isn’t until 2012, the question as to whom the next candidate will be – Putin or Medvedev – continues to consume the interest of foreign analysts.

At this year’s Valday Discussion Club, which brings together foreign policy makers, journalists and academics in Russia each year, the question on everybody’s minds burst to the surface.

Nikolay Zlobin, Senior Fellow at the Center for Defense Information, asked if “Vladimir Putin would be competition to Dmitry Medvedev in the 2012 election?”

Putin responded, “Did we compete in 2008? No. So we will not compete in 2012. We shall think together and take into account the realities of the time, our personal plans, the political landscape.

Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs, when asked about the endless speculation over Medvedev and Putin and the next election said that it was pointless to predict anything.

“I can only draw one conclusion, and that is both are heartily fed up with these questions,” Lukianov told Vremya Novostey newspaper. “Hence, their vague answers that commit nobody to anything.”

But this undue attention to an event so far off in the distance could be seen as an effort by particular individuals to drive a wedge between Russia’s two leading men. But somehow I get the feeling that it will be Medvedev and Putin who will have the last laugh come 2012.

Robert Bridge, RT