Monday, December 06, 2004

What is Putin up to?

The article below is from an email from Sharon Tennison, President of the Center for Citizen Initiatives, an American NGO that conducts programs to assist Russian entrepreneurs. She wrote this from St. Petersburg.

The big questions in all Russia watcher's minds these days are,
"What is Putin up to?", "Is Putin really an authoritarian who is
turning Russia back to totalitarianism?", "What are we to make of
Putin's recent decisions?"

I've just returned from Moscow, where I had the most interesting and
most high-level group of meetings ever. It happened mainly because I
was able to get in touch with some specialists in Moscow who have
grown in prominence since I was last in contact with them.

In any case, this fact conspired to allow me interviews with several
well-known Russians who, to my surprise, have had recent meetings
with Vladimir Putin concerning Russia's economy, media, corruption
and the reforms. None of them are in the government; all could be
said to be "informal advisors" or at least respected by Putin for
their specific expertise. They don't consider themselves supporters
or non-supporters of Putin - rather independent thinkers and
analysts. None had had discussions regarding the Ukraine events
since these exploded after the last time they met with Putin.

I won't mention names since for the most part they are my friends,
but rather I will try to give a short summary of discussions with
them regarding their take on the situation in the Kremlin and Putin's
recent decision making. First, they are honest people and
specialists, given to deep and penetrating analysis, not cover-ups or
sensationalism. I didn't mention any of my discussions with other
appointments to them. To my knowledge none of them know each other
well, if at all, but certainly by name. All believe instinctively
in democratic principles and healthy globalism.

The general picture they give is that Putin is in an extremely
precarious place now, even though he still enjoys phenomenal
popularity with the masses despite the beginnings of his social
reforms; that his experience in Germany and his ability to speak
German fluently (therefore understanding European culture and
thinking) deeply impacted his basic concepts regarding democracy and
free markets; that without doubt Putin is still a reformer at heart;
but the challenge is "how" to make it work in Russia, a nation of
endemic corrupt practices and citizens with little to no experience
with democratic principles and institutions. This includes everyone
in the chain of power from local district heads, to regional
governors, up to and including the State Duma.

Russian specialists in Moscow think tanks have, as it turns out,
pondered these governance issues, some for 25 years. One said that
in 1971, they and their institute looked at all the nation's
parameters and knew that the USSR was economically doomed. They began
studying the experience of other nations for conversion to a
different form of government by making exploratory trips to other
countries which had stepped from a centralized top-down economy to a
free market economy; e.g. Chile and others. It wasn't until the 80s
that Putin was put in Germany where he observed daily, the pluses and
minuses of closed and open societies. But the average Soviet on the
street was still immersed in communism and felt it would last forever
- while top leadership carried on as long as they could with blinders
in place. Gorbachev finally began to tear the blinders off.

Putin's current choices and dilemma as explained to me: In
his first term, he had to clean out as much of the Yeltsin influence
as possible. Putin appointed to chief posts, lawyers he knew
personally, perhaps thinking they could be trusted and would be the
brightest and best able to deal with legislative changes. However,
it was pointed out to me that Russian lawyers aren't known for
creative thinking, that for the most part they think "in the box"
and Putin's choices have been no different. He has been disappointed
with their thinking and actions and at present is using them less and
depending more on his own instincts. No president can afford to do
this for long, given that one person's instincts for a whole nation
cannot produce reliable decision making. This situation is of deep,
deep concern for those with whom I spoke.

I would also add an all-important point to my mind and that is: Putin
came to office in his first term without a constituency... unlike
presidents of other countries who are swept in by hoards of bright
and not so bright people. Putin had no party which elected him;
indeed, he had to get rid of the prevailing power that brought him to
the presidency - the oligarchs who ran the Kremlin under Yeltsin.
That he was able to wrench their hands from the steering wheel of
the state and personally survive, was a feat that I and others didn't
believe he could accomplish. For the most part, he has succeeded and
is still alive - something of a miracle since these super rich are
reported to have been involved with contract killings, etc.

So Putin had no built-in support system when he came to power, no
wide knowledge of who to select for the many posts which required new
heads during his four years. He's been ridiculed for stacking
Russia's appointee seats with University friends from StPetersburg
and former members of the KGB with whom he had worked. While not
wise, what would any do in similar predicament? We would most likely
choose those we knew and thought we could trust. As for the old
guard in Russia, there were precious few, if any, who he could trust.

None of those I spoke with last week think Putin is personally "power
hungry." It seemed to them a ridiculous question to ask and was
brushed off. They believe he wants the best for Russia and that he
wants Russia to be integrated into the world of free nations. None
believe that he wants a return to rank authoritarianism. All believe
he is in a harrowing spot trying to figure out "how" to get from
where the nation is today to where it needs to go, but not knowing
the means to get there, whom to trust to help - and is working in
near isolation at this juncture. This is both tragic for him and
dangerous for Russia.

I'd like to add another personal comment which to my mind complicates
Putin's task as president and that is the behaviors and practices of
Russia's citizenry. We assume that Russian and Western citizens are
alike, that we think alike, that we reason alike. For the most part
we do. On the educational and intellectual end, Russians in general
surpass Americans educationally and in classical culture. However,
there is one small but very decisive aspect of their public and
collective experience which has a near void.

This includes the very crux of what it takes to create a civil
society: a near void in the impulse of citizens to unite, the
willingness to stand up publicly for change; the inclination to
challenge authorities; the stomach to run for public office to change
things; the willingness to take on informal leadership; the
experience to organize and facilitate effective ad hoc meetings; the
ability to lead or to accept leadership from each other; the capacity
to trust one another. This void is understandable; they have had no
practice, no models in these spheres. For three generations, even
centuries, any of these attempts were punished by imprisonment and
even death. However, in combination, they vastly complicate Russia's
ability today to move toward democratic behaviors and institutions,
and local self governance. Any country's executive leadership needs
a viable, strong collective voice from the bottom up to inform and
balance executive power. There is a Russian proverb that says
something like, the Tsar who doesn't listen to boyars is damned...
The question of freedom of the media comes up here, and yet it is
more than that. People uniting creates voice, developing and
lobbying societal needs, business needs, gets attention. This void
must be filled by Russian citizens themselves.

Hopefully the current experience of assertiveness by citizens in
Ukraine, whether Russians agree with Ukrainians goals or not, will
provide Russians with a model and embolden them to see what can
happen when citizens unite and stand for what they believe they

One important aspect to acknowledge: Russians who have developed
businesses, those who help facilitate the building of business
sectors (like CCI offices across Russia's regions), and those who
have had out-of-country experience, tend to have much better
understanding of what's needed to develop civil society and have a
readiness to stand up and be counted, than do those who haven't had
this combination of experiences.

Thanks to all of you who have hosted Russian entrepreneurs in your
businesses, homes and communities where they have been able to fill
in the blanks left by their near unique history - which they aren't
responsible for - but nonetheless needs to be replaced by a more
open, assertive society if Russia moves to its rightful place in the
21st century. Thanks also to the Department of State which has
helped fund PEP and other CCI programs and recently has worked
diligently to help CCI move the PEP program into perpetuity.

I'm told that Putin is currently putting together a "public
chamber" to try to stimulate innovative thinking and input from
high-level professionals across Russia, thus providing additional
brain power at the top. It is said that the chamber will be composed
of volunteer specialists with no remuneration, cars, dachas or
privileges. They will have revolving term limits.