Russia's Course: Still Uncertain

By David Ignatius
Friday, February 16, 2007

MOSCOW -- Think of the new Russia as a highway: People used to drive on the left side of the road; now, officially, they are supposed to drive on the right, but the change has been uncomfortable (especially for the authorities). So the country straddles the middle -- which is understandable, but also dangerous.

That's a paradox of Vladimir Putin's Russia that I have encountered in nearly every conversation here this week. Russian officials insist they don't want to go back to communism, and why would they? Moscow glitters like a Christmas package, with more neon per square mile than any city I know. But behind Moscow's dazzling lights, the remnants of the old police state remain -- and many order-loving Russians seem glad of it.

The energy boom has helped Russians forget about the nagging problem of where they're heading politically. "There is a lack of clarity about our final destination," says one prominent Russian businessman. "Are we building China? The United States? Sweden? What is it? The situation now cannot continue. We are sitting between two chairs."

Russia is wary of full, American-style democracy, argues Konstantin Kosachyov, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of the Russian parliament. "To my mind, democracy is not a goal in itself, it is an instrument. It is the best instrument, but it should be used very cautiously. It's like the jackhammers that miners use. It increases productivity, but if you give this instrument to a child, it will destroy the child."

Kosachyov explains that Russians have bad memories of the wide-open democracy of the 1990s, and most Russians I spoke with confirmed that view. It was a crazy time, when people's savings were wiped out, gangsters battled in the streets, and the country was governed by what Russians saw as an alcoholic president and his thieving cronies. "Democracy came to us without us being ready to use it in a constructive way, and it destroyed us," says Kosachyov. "That's why Putin acts in a cautious way. He does not want to repeat the experience of the 1990s."

The Russian political puzzle now centers on the question of who will succeed Putin when his second term ends in 2008. The Russian president is very popular, and he would almost certainly be reelected if he ran for a third term, but he insists he will abide by the new constitution's two-term limit. So who is the crown prince? Moscow was buzzing this week about whether Putin favored First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev or Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. Medvedev appeared to be the front-runner -- until Putin announced late Thursday that he was promoting Ivanov to equal status as first deputy prime minister, with new economic responsibilities.

The succession circus, in truth, reinforces the awkwardness of Russia's not-quite-democratic system. Analysts count the minutes allocated to Medvedev and Ivanov on state-controlled television. It's like Kremlin-watching in the old days, when observers tried to handicap power struggles by noting where officials stood on the podium during parades in Red Square. The reality is that power resides with Putin and his small inner circle of presidential assistants.

I had a chance to peek into Putin's inner circle this week when I met with his chief economic adviser, Igor Shuvalov. His office is a Soviet-era palace that once housed the head of the Communist Party, but Shuvalov is very much of the new era: He's just 40, speaks English fluently and is as sharply dressed as any London investment banker.

A key to Russia's future, argues Shuvalov, is Putin's decision to seek membership in the World Trade Organization. He says some Kremlin advisers opposed WTO accession, but Putin decided it was the best way to guarantee Russia's continued economic modernization. When I ask about corruption in the new Russia, Shuvalov doesn't deny the problem. "We need to be persistent and patient," he says. "If we are persistent, then slowly it will change."

High oil prices have encouraged a consumer boom, but they are a mixed blessing. The giant state-controlled gas and oil companies, Gazprom and Rosneft, overwhelm the rest of the economy and dominate Russian politics -- with several of Putin's closest advisers holding energy directorships. Energy politics and democratic politics don't mix easily.

"Don't give up on us. Treat us as a normal democratic country," says Mikhail Kasyanov, who was prime minister during Putin's first three years but is now a critic of the government. Certainly, Western pressure can help preserve democracy here. But in the end, it's the Russians who will have to decide which side of the road they're driving on.

The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/postglobal. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


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