The Rollback of Democracy In Vladimir Putin's Russia
Tuesday, June 7, 2005
This article is adapted from "Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution," published today by Scribner.
On a cold afternoon in the winter of 2004, Vladimir Putin summoned his long-serving prime minister to his Kremlin office.
"Unfortunately," Putin told him, "I have to fire you."
Mikhail Kasyanov was stunned. The Russian president gave no reason for the abrupt dismissal. Facing a national vote on his reelection just two weeks away, Putin had chosen a surprising time to shift governments. As he absorbed the news, Kasyanov assumed he would have to leave after the election. No, Putin corrected the prime minister. "I mean now."
The power of paranoia had gripped the Kremlin. For four years, the men around Putin had done everything possible to guarantee that no one could challenge his authority. The government had taken over national television, emasculated the power of the country's governors, converted parliament into a rubber stamp, jailed the main financier of the political opposition and intimidated the most potent would-be challengers from entering the race.
The Kremlin had proved so successful in eliminating competition that Putin's token competitors were now plotting to drop out en masse to protest the manipulation. And Putin's aides feared such a move could result in turnout on election day falling below the legal minimum. If that happened, the prime minister would become president for a month before a new election, putting him potentially in a position to do to Putin what Putin had done to his rivals -- a remote prospect but still untenable for a leader who believed no detail of democracy was too small to be managed. "In his mentality," one senior Putin aide said later, "every risk should be minimized to zero."
The risk posed by Kasyanov no longer seemed acceptable four years into Putin's rule. By now, the fledgling democracy of the post-Soviet era had been transformed into a system meant to serve one master. The revolution that Boris Yeltsin had started when he helped bring down the Soviet Union in 1991, however flawed, however unfinished, had been ended by his handpicked successor, a man drawn from the ranks of the old KGB. "The Russian people," Putin's chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin, regularly told colleagues behind closed doors, "are not ready for democracy."
This account of Putin's rise to power and his campaign to consolidate authority in his Kremlin was drawn from interviews with dozens of Russian political figures, including Putin advisers who had rarely spoken to Western journalists before. Out of fear of retribution, many of them shared their insights on the condition that they not be named.
Putin, now 52, had come to office promising stability after a decade of dislocation. But in 2004, four years later, his Russia was a country of contrasts, with a booming economy floating on oil and with political space for dissent rapidly disappearing. Creeping crises threatened the future, whether a demographic collapse fueled by alcoholism and AIDS that could slice the Russian population by a third in coming decades or the blood-feud war in Chechnya that had left hundreds of thousands dead, injured or homeless and spawned a wave of horrific terrorism.
But Putin was running for reelection with soothing words for his tired nation. His prime minister was as unpopular with the public as Putin was popular, and there would be no ballot-box consequences if he were jettisoned. "The time of uncertainty and anxious expectations is past," Putin had told voters in his one and only campaign appearance.
Physically, Vladimir Putin was hardly a dominating figure in any room, a relatively slight man at 5 foot 9, rail-thin with a retreating hairline, hard eyes and a strained, joyless smile. In keeping with his KGB training, he had a skill for listening and taking on the persona desired by his interlocutors.
But Putin was not a born president. He commanded no mass following, articulated no grand vision for his country, had never been elected to public office. At the moment when Yeltsin publicly anointed him his chosen successor in 1999, polls showed his popularity rating at just 2 percent. He was the creation of one of the most extraordinary political projects in history -- "Project Putin," as some of those in the Kremlin came to call the effort they were enlisted to run.