"Kremlin Rising": Putin's Power
Tuesday, June 7, 2005; 2:00 PM
The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union brought with it great hopes for Russian democracy. In recent years, however, the prospects have faded as President Vladimir Putin has consolidated power over the press, economic assets and electoral politics. Washington Post reporters Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, who spent four years as bureau chiefs in Moscow, tell of Putin's reversal of post-Soviet reforms while chronicling the impact on Russian citizens in their new book "Kremlin Rising." To what extent has Russia reverted to Soviet-style authoritarianism? What is the outlook for Russia under Putin and his potential successors?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, authors of "Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution," were online to discuss Putin's power and the threat to Russian democracy.
Read an excerpt from "Kremlin Rising": The Rollback of Democracy in Vladimir Putin's Russia.
"Kremlin Rising" was released on June 7.
A transcript follows.
Potomac, Md.: Your portrayal of Putin is quite harsh. How do you square that with polls showing he is very popular? If democracy is the goal, isn't that the highest form of democracy?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Hi, thanks everybody for joining us. We're thrilled to have the chance to hash through some of the interesting issues raised by President Putin and Russia today.
The questioner is absolutely right of course that Putin is very popular; our book attempts to explain why that is, but also to look at how the Kremlin has shaped public opinion in the first place. After the 1990's, even the word "democracy" was discredited in Russia; Putin is very very skillful at playing off that sentiment.
Fontana, Calif.: What connection, if any, do you see with Solzhenitsyn's recent interview, and the events unfolding within Putin's Kremlin ?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Very interesting idea... for those who haven't seen it, the famous Soviet gulag survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was interviewed over the weekend. Told Russian TV that Russian democracy isn't in jeopardy because there is no such thing as Russian democracy -- in essence, this is really the line that Putin himself and his aides take. In fact, in our book we quote Putin ex-chief of staff Voloshin telling colleagues in private, "the Russian people are not ready for democracy." This is a key to understanding Kremlin thinking.
Chesapeake Beach, Md.: Do you think the Secretary of State is too "Moscow-centric" in her dealings with Russia? She seems to focus too much on the capitol, and less so out on the rest of the country. Couldn't the U.S. start to deal more with regional authorities to lessen Putin's influence, such as the governor of Tartastan or some of the other areas?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Interesting notion, but probably impossible in the very top-down state Russia inherited from the Soviet Union (and the tsars for that matter). Tatarstan, where we've been several times, is a great example of a regional fiefdom under Shamiyev but he has had to cede much power to Moscow in order to stay in office under Putin.
Silver Spring, Md.: Do you think Putin will leave office at the end of his current term, or amend the Constitution to allow him a third? Or is it more likely that he will sit on the sidelines and plot for 4 years and then run again in 2012?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Excellent question. Really it's the number one topic among the Moscow elites, who call it the 2008 question. Putin has said he will not seek a third term or amend the constitution but it's also hard to imagine that he and his team would have done so much to reconsolidate power in the Kremlin only to give it up after eight years. That's given rise to scenarios like the one you suggest... Stay tuned.
Washington, D.C.: Thank you so much for your time--I've long admired the quality on your reporting on Russia for The Post and look forward to reading your book. I have two questions. First, do you think that the decline of Russian democracy has shaped Moscow's reaction to recent the political changes throughout the post-Soviet region? Second, do you believe that those changes in Georgia, Ukraine, and in several Central Asian republics will effect Russia in 2008, when President Putin is scheduled to leave office?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Thanks so much for the question. On the post-Soviet space, Russia still feels very proprietary about its periphery. And Putin seemed genuinely surprised that he could not influence the outcome of last year's Ukrainian election the way he has so many elections at home -- exporting "managed democracy" turned out not to work, at least in this case. But reaction in Russia might not be the same, in fact many Russians across the political spectrum still seem to harbor resentment about the collapse of empire.
Fontana, California: Concerning your comment on Solzhenitsyn: However, Solzhenitsyn is quite scathing in his criticism of Putin's policies. Can these seemingly diametrically opposed views be reconciled?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Sure. You can have a similar analysis of whether Russia is a democracy or not, but at the same time take very different views about how Putin is actually running the country. Historically, Solzhenitsyn has been relatively supportive of Putin, perhaps seeing in him a fellow "Great Russia" patriot.
Washington, D.C.: "... to create the image of United Russia and to destroy the Communists."
I found that "mission statement" to be quite profound, considering that the KGB and its "siloviki" were once the ultimate protectors of Communist ideology and cause!!! (Sigh).
Great article, I enjoyed reading it. Along the context of the changing Russian political scenery, can you give us your your insight on Putin's relationships with the U.S., specifically with President Bush?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Thanks for the comments. Interesting to note that the KGB veterans we talked to for the book were at pains to portray themselves not as the upholders of Communist ideology but as the neutral "servants of the state." And that's how many view Putin -- not interested in resurrecting the Communist part of the Soviet Union but in restoring its superpower status.
Washington, D.C.: Peter and Susan, I was wondering if you could offer your perceptions of the Bush/Putin relationship. It seems to me that Putin plays Bush like a fiddle, understanding that he can get what he wants if he flatters the man and makes him feel grand and important. What would Bush have seen had he truly peered into Putin's soul?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: The Bush-Putin relationship has evolved from that first, very generous view, "soul"gazing and all that. Now it seems to be much more skeptical. But Bush, having basically embraced Putin in the past, finds himself in the tricky position of being stuck with the his dance partner. And Russia right now is not exactly the center of the administration's attention
Arlington, Va.: Many of the more alarmist prognoses for Russia warn of a return to Stalinist rule. But it seems to me that the model Putin is aiming for is not Stalin but Deng Xia Peng. Having decided that trying to achieve political democratization and market reform simultaneously is a pipedream, he is trying to turn the clock back to 1988, not 1938, in hopes that market reforms can be implemented more slowly without all that pesky democracy.
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Yes, China is always the model that Moscow elites were wistfully citing to us, as the road not taken. Of course, it's too late to go down that path, the democracy genie is out of the bottle, there was 1991 and the fall of the Berlin wall not Tiananmen. But certainly that's what Putin and his aides would have preferred (and seem in a way to be trying to emulate now, to the extent that they can).
Washington, D.C.: Do you think there are any powers in Russia to oppose Mr. Putin? Are there any leaders who could be the next president?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: No. At least not that anyone can see at the moment.
Kennesaw, Ga.: It sounds rather less as if democracy in Russia is being rolled back than as if it was a seed planted in very shallow soil that sprouted briefly and is now dying.
I've only read The Post's excerpt from your book, not the book itself. However, it appears that at no time did Putin's drive for power encounter anything like serious public opposition, only scattered opposition from Yeltsin former entourage, regional political figures and the oligarchs. Which leads to this question, pertaining to how American should relate to Russia's new reality:
From the time of the Soviet Union's dissolution American government officials have spoken as if Communism was dead, at least outside of the Russian Communist Party. Is this wise? Putin's rise and regime are unthinkable without the legacy left in every aspect of Russian society by Soviet Communism, and I wonder whether it does not make sense to regard this legacy as an enemy that has still to be fought and killed.
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Well, we hope you do read the book... Your insights strike us as very thoughtful and on point. Russia never came to terms with its past, never genuinely disavowed the Soviet legacy -- without that sort of a truth and reconciliation process, Russia seems trapped in a debate over history and the ghosts of Stalinism still loom large. Though, in reality, there's surprisingly little open debate even on this.
Moscow, Russia: How different do you think Russia would have turned out if Putin had allowed a system more open to criticism and choice? He has always been genuinely popular, and Russians' praise for his policies can be very heartfelt. He may be centralizing power, but it's not always clear that a more participatory government would have chosen a very different path.
Let me start to answer my own question to show you what I'm thinking. I personally suspect that (a) Chechnya would be a different, hopefully better place if the press had been more free to comment on the awful situation there, and rally public opinion for a political solution, (b) I don't think Ukraine's and Georgia's current governments would be as wary or hostile if they found at least a few like-minded individuals in the Duma and in the administration, (c) the problems with monetization of social benefits perhaps could have been headed off if they had been discussed more by advisers who were more willing to tell the emperor that he had no clothes.
What other examples are there?
I've lived in Moscow twelve of the past fourteen years, working with refugees and human rights. This country has big problems. I sometimes find it difficult to pick apart the effects of policies from the effects of the past twenty (hundred?) years. I admire both your efforts and your results!
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Dear Mark in Moscow,
What a tantalizing what-if scenario... You are absolutely right about Putin's genuine popularity (how many babushkas have you met who praised him to the heavens for his sober youthfulness?), but at the same time we had so many people tell us there was no meaningful alternative to Putin they could ever consider and therefore no point in criticizing his policies. Best summed up for us in case of an underwear salesman in Nizhny Novgorod who voted for Putin, didn't like any of his policies and told us, "For 1500 years the government has been blaming us just for living in Russia."
Fairfax, Va.: Why doesn't Putin better understand the U.S.? For instance, during a recent meeting with the press he claimed that the U.S. government had a role in forcing Dan Rather to retire from the evening news. That seems like a very fundamental misperception and not one you would normally expect from the leader of a powerful country that has been closely watching the U.S. for decades.
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Yes, an interesting thing to pick up on. We tell a story in our book about a Bush Putin meeting where Putin accused the US of maintaining two separate sets of chicken plants -- one to make the "bad" chicken for Russia, the other making "good" chicken for America. "Vladimir, you're wrong," Bush said. But he couldn't convince him.
Washington, D.C.: You suggest Putin has "rolled back" democracy in Russia. This, of course, begs the question of whether there was any democracy to be rolled back. As one questioner already noted, Solzhenitsyn just made this very point. You quote Voloshin as saying the people are not ready for democracy, but Voloshin was Yeltsin's chief of staff as well. In any case, it seems to me the real issue is not what Putin's goals may or may not be, but why can't he implement them or propose any kind of coherent national strategy. Several reasons come to mind: corruption, organized crime, continual fights over property--and these are not unique to Putin's tenure. Your thoughts?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Certainly a fair point -- many people have noted that Yeltin, especially by the end, was no pure democrat and nor were many of the "young reformers" like Chubais, who took an almost Bolshevik like view of means and ends. But what's striking about the Putin presidency is the direction it's heading; even the fiction of the democratic experiment is over and now the Kremlin doesn't even define it in those terms.
Stratford, N.J.: Were there any significant repercussions in Moscow from Putin's backing of the now-defeated Yanukovich during the Ukrainian election drama, aside from embarrassment? Is Putin "untouchable" domestically?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Ukraine fallout is a fascinating issue. Kremlin was certainly worried -- even set up its own proxy youth group, called "Nashi" (Ours), in case they needed to counter street protests as happened in Ukraine. But so far there's no real massive grassroots action in Russia. And what some Russian democrats felt Ukraine showed the passivity of the Russian population, which they could not imagine turning out in numbers comparable to those in the streets of Kyiv.
Washington, D.C.: I'm a U.S. citizen and I was in St. Petersburg last year and was stunned at the police's thug mentality: in the span of one week, I was approached and very physically interrogated on the street for no cognizable reason. Russians I spoke with tell me that I was actually lucky -- they live in constant fear of the police. Putin's justification for the crack-down, they say, is terrorism.
In your opinion, do not the current trends in Russia remind you of what happened at the turn of the 20th century, when Tsar Nicolas II, in response to terrorist threats, clamped down on civil liberties (such as they were). And it seems that Putin's paranoia rivals Lenin's after the revolution. Thoughts?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: First on the police -- an unfortunate omnipresent reality in Russia today, particularly if you are not Slavic looking in appearance. At the same time, the police are so widely held to be corrupt and ineffective at preventing terrorism, Chechen guerrillas regularly taunt Russians that their terrorist attacks wouldn't be possible if the police weren't so easily bribed to let them into places like the Beslan school.
Second, on the historical comparison to the age of Nicholas II, one difference is that the economic deprivation of that time was so stark and for the moment at least oil has managed to float the economy and raise overall a standard of living battered sorely in the 1990's.
Acton, Mass.: Well, it looks like Putin was battling Russia's Communist party all along, same as Boris Yeltsin. Why is this bad? Also, was not Khodorkovsky's support for Communists, and pipeline to China project moves directed against U.S. interests in Eurasia? How is his downfall a bad thing in itself, if he tried to buy factions in the Duma and control Russia's lawmakers? About Kasyanov: What can you say about his 'nickname' Misha 2%, supposedly earned when he was arranging Russia's Paris Club deals? Is not it bad when prime minister is widely suspected of corruption and bribery? I mean, maybe there were other reasons to fire him, but if he was so openly corrupt his days were numbered anyway.
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Taking Kasyanov first, we'd point out that he wasn't fired for being corrupt but for being a potential threat and member of the losing faction of an internal Kremlin power struggle. But absolutely one of the reasons Putin maintains his popularity is because of a general perception that others in politics are far more tainted than he. On Khodorkovsky, our reporting suggested that Putin's anger was focused on his grand political aspirations rather than any concern about 1990's fraud and tax evasion. And no one thinks that Khodorkovsky wanted to bring Communism back to Russia; if he was bankrolling Communist candidates that was to get votes in the Duma for his agenda, not theirs.
Washington, D.C. File under strange but true-- Putin's allegation of the U.S. sending "bad" chicken to Russia is not just an indication of his paranoia. Russian meat packers buy unwanted dark meat from the U.S. (where we love our boneless-skinless chicken breast) and white meat from China (where they prefer the tasty, fatty legs) and combine the two back into "whole" chickens for the Russian market. So yes, Russia does get our cast-off chicken.
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Sure. And they call them "Bush legs." But the interesting point to us is Putin's apparent belief in the existence of actual segregated factories to ship the bad stuff to Russia.
Bethesda, Md.: You portray Putin as a strict autocrat, almost a control freak, especially in terms of his public image. Is this because he feels/is insecure in his power (despite his high ratings)? Where might his fear of weakness come from?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: When Putin was young he idolized a popular spy series called "The Sword and the Shield." In it the hero, a KGB agent, says "my ambition is to have as few people as possible to order me around and to have the right to command as many as possible." Putin seemed to remember that when he took over as president. When an interviewer asked him what he liked about being in the Kremlin he said, "Nobody controls me here. I control everybody myself."
Arlington, Va.: What are the contributions Russia has made and is making to the War on Terror effort?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Good question. The Bush administration constantly cites this as a justification for continued close relations with Putin even at a time of democratic rollback, but there have been few public and substantive examples of what this cooperation yields since the early days after 9/11 when Russia did a significant favor to the U.S. by allowing American troops in to Central Asia.
Long Beach, Calif.: Voloshin is quite right, I'm afraid. The Russian people have greater respect for Russian power and image in the world than they do individual freedoms. A top topic of debate in my home. My Russian wife's favorite retort: "What freedom? Here (U.S.) we are slaves to the economic engine, with no health care, no child care for working parents, little old age security... we (the former Soviet Union) had all those things!" It doesn't bother her that she needed an internal passport to travel between Russian cities, that she couldn't leave the country without great scrutiny (and even then only to countries within the bloc), or that class privileges (read for party members) were alive and well in the "communist utopia". Russians are very patriotic people, they want Russian spoken, they want their views to be the correct ones, and they want a leader who projects these things. Remind you of any other late 20th century super-power?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Yes, we've heard this debate before as well... even among our dinner guests in Moscow.
Munich, Germany: One of my thoughts is that Russia as a democracy would never have a chance to rein in corruption and dismantle the powerful Russian Mafia. On the other hand, are there any signs that Putin is catering to either one of these Russian facts-of-life (corruption and Mafia)?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Sure. One school of thought holds that Putin has not so much taken on the oligarchy as created his own oligarchs. Corruption is such a fact of life in Russia at every level -- remember the suicide bomber who bribed her way onto the plane last year in Moscow for the low low price of $34.
Fontana, Calif.: Concerning Ukraine's effect on Russia: But isn't the situation in both countries quite different? Kuchma was quite unpopular, Putin is quite popular. Why would thousands of Russians have an Orange Revolution in Russia if they seem to be basically satisfied with what he's doing, especially their perception of his cracking down on corruption, excesses of the oligarchs, etc.?
This is quite different from Kuchma's reputation. Shouldn't perhaps the so-called "democrats" in Russia be more concerned about building grass-roots democracy, in trying to get in touch with the people, than in bickering among themselves and complaining about all the freedoms they don't have? Does this smack of a certain amount of elitism on the part of the so-called democrats?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Absolutely. The "democrats" in Russia are generally speaking a very elitist group. Remember this was the crowd whose main campaign ad on television in 2003 showed its three leaders on board a private jet, soaring high above the everyday Russia in cream leather seats...
Washington, D.C.: While Putin is certainly consolidating economic and political power, how much reach does this power have into Russian's everyday lives? Does the current regime have the resources and support to really monitor what is happening in all the provinces as in the real "big brother" days of the Soviet Union, or can ordinary folk-- loyal, dissident, or criminal-- pretty much go about their lives?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Yes, life goes on. You can tell a mean joke about Putin (or sign on a web site, www.vladimirvladimirovich.ru for harsh satire on the guy) without worrying about being hauled in by the KGB the next day. This is neo-Soviet, not Soviet. The main focus is on people with genuine potential to act as rivals in the political sphere or challenge the Kremlin's monopoly on power -- media, business, politicians, courts, etc.
Wheaton, Md.: So far, Putin has failed to bring Islamic terrorism under control. Does this show he may not be as powerful as believed?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: This was a line of criticism of Putin after last year's horrific Beslan massacre of schoolchildren. For all his power, it's clear he not only does not have absolute control but many argue that his prosecution of the war in Chechnya has only radicalized a new generation of terrorists. Then again, the opposition needs to have credibility to make that case. And right now they don't.
Washington, D.C.: Thanks for the insightful coverage of Putin and Russia. What are the prospects for democracy when Putin is no longer president? How much do the prospects for true democracy in Russia depend on WHO is president, and how much do they depend on other factors (pre-established institutions, the Russian people's desire -- or lack thereof -- for democracy, etc.)?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Russia has almost always been a top down society, so it does matter who's at the top. At the moment Russians don't seem inclined to protest the changes in the country under Putin. So a radical course change seems unlikely. Then again, Russia is a birthplace of revolutions, and this may be the historical ebb to that flow.
Washington, D.C.: Fascinating excerpt; looking forward to reading the book. As I read it, however, I was struck by certain parallels with the Bush administration -- paranoia, consolidation of power, etc. In particular, the sentence beginning "The government had taken over national television, emasculated the power of the country's governors, converted parliament into a rubber stamp . . ." really seemed quite similar to what's happening now in the U.S.. As you wrote the book, were you struck by the same observations and, if so, what do you think the experience in Russia under Putin might say about our future in this country under Bush and/or his Republican progeny?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Thanks for the comment. Lots of these Bush comparisons, not sure whether they're warranted -- always dangerous to throw in the apples and the oranges.
Harrisburg, Pa.: What are most likely scenarios you see Russia taking in a post-Putin period, and what are the major factors that will determine which of the paths Russia will end up taking?
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser: Thank you all for the great questions today -- we're heartened that there seems to be so much interest in Russia and its future course. For us, one telling window into that future was the time we spent with a high school history class in Moscow which upended many of our preconceived notions. Instead of a nostalgic Soviet vintage teacher with new generations kids pushing for capitalist opportunity, we found a class where the majority thought "Lenin was right after all" and that Russia needed to revert to its authoritarian history. In the end, the teacher told us of her students, "they're not really for democracy but at least their brains are moving."
Thanks again to all...
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