The recent interview of Vladimir Putin with three senior media executives provides insights into the democratic vision and blind spots of Russia’s leading politician as he prepares for his return to the presidency.
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
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In what follows, the reader will find a summary of the current thinking on democratic institutions of Russia’s leading politician, who is very likely to re-assume the presidency in 2012. My exegesis is at odds with 99% of what is written about Vladimir Putin’s regime in the English-language press and blogosphere.
I do not intend to engage here in an evaluation of the man as it is usually couched: contrasting the constraints which Putin placed on Russia’s political space, what pundits call his ‘managed democracy’ and the alleged golden age of Russian freedom under his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. That is a separate issue which I have dealt with elsewhere in considerable detail. My position is that the 1990s were a time of license, not liberty, which brought the economy and the political structure of Russia to its knees, giving Western-style democracy a bad name for a large majority of the Russian population. I propose now to look strictly at Putin’s stated vision for his country, where democracy figures prominently, and to consider what the particulars mean for the evolution of the highest institutions of state, that it to say, for his intended political legacy.
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Several of my friends and relations take pride in keeping television-free households, although, to be sure, they stay abreast of world news via the periodical press, which they even buy in newsstands in a concession to tradition, or via the internet as a concession to modern times.
However, in my search for ‘primary sources’ of information I find that television can be an excellent medium – not every day, but from time to time when there are special broadcasts which place the viewer in the position of a fly-on-the-wall as history unfolds. And in this regard, with a view to my professional interest in Russian affairs, I am especially beholden to the state news channel Vesti, which often broadcasts in full and without commentary events such as meetings of the UN Security Council or press conferences abroad in which key Russian interests are in play.
This past week, on Monday evening, 17 October, Vesti carried one such event which merited close attention, the interview which Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gave to three media leaders. It was the PM’s first such appearance since his designation as the 2012 presidential candidate of the ruling United Russia party at its convention on 24 September, and it was intended to respond to the many questions which have arisen among the public over what course a new Putin presidency might take.
The full transcript of the interview was later posted in both Russian and English translation on the Prime Minister’s website. The Russian original is especially interesting in that it was not ‘cleaned up’ in any way, and even the occasional grammatical mistake made in spoken language was left intact. However, interesting as the written record may be, it does not convey adequately the interpersonal dynamics of the interview, the pace of question and answer and the remarkable feistiness of the Russian premier which tends to subdue even aggressive sparring partners. Indeed, this interview was yet another demonstration of the personal charisma and…let’s not deny it, the personal bravery of a man who is rarely politically correct and tends to speak his mind, making him all the more exceptional on a world stage populated by very cautious politicians who heed their PR-minded handlers.
One of the most telling exchanges was between Putin and the Director General of the national television channel NTV, Vladimir Kulistikov, who characterized the Prime Minister as the practitioner of a ‘strong hand’ approach to rule, contrasting him with the current President’s positioning as a humanizing influence on Russian government practices.
Vladimir Putin made it clear that both members of the tandem held similar views on where they were steering the ship of state, and that their methods were adapted to the challenges they faced, evolving with those challenges. He reminded his interlocutor that when he took power at the start of the new millennium, the country was in advanced disintegration and he had had to ‘tighten the screws’ politically to bring it back from the brink. By the time of Medvedev’s accession to power in 2008, stability was well in hand and it became possible to liberalize certain areas of political life, such as the system of criminal punishment and the criminal courts.
But Putin did not stop there.
Kulistikov’s question was, shall we say, not meant to be kind. And I wish to stress that none of the three senior media executives taking part in the interview was feeding from the Prime Minister’s hands. They came to the show intending to present to him not only the uncertainties of the general public over what lay ahead but the often harsh and unfriendly remarks of the domestic Opposition and of the West in general.
Putin effectively neutralized the animosity implicit in Kulistikov’s question, reminding him that official liberalism was nothing new and that he, Kulistikov, was personally a beneficiary of indulgence from above. The NTV boss had worked for Radio Liberty from 1993 to 1996 as senior commentator and supervisor of the daily news programs of the Moscow bureau. Putin recalled that in his own former positions within the KGB, Radio Liberty was seen, with good reason, as a hostile, CIA-financed propaganda outfit directed against the country, and yet Kulistikov’s rise to the top of news programming at the Russian state television after 2002 and then in 2004 to the head of the NTV media empire with national and international reach was not hindered on his own watch.
The unstated point Putin was making is that we all are capable of changing. Putin came back to the same notion later in the interview, when Konstantin Ernst, CEO of Channel One Russia, remarked that Putin’s expected return to the presidency was not viewed with pleasure in the West, where he was considered to be a ‘hawk.’ After letting fall the pleasantry that hawks are really quite nice birds, Putin went to the heart of the matter: that he rejects the labels which others seek to apply to him, and that his abiding concern is to defend Russian national interests, pursue a foreign policy which is respectful of other nations large and small, a foreign policy which is civil and non-confrontational, and to further consolidate Russia’s democratic institutions and market economy. That is to say, he sets his policy objectives at a higher level of abstraction, outside any framework of hard line, soft line.
In the course of the interview, Vladimir Putin repeatedly came back to the question of democratic institutions. The broad context was to underline his own commitment to rule of the people. This was meant to answer directly the criticism coming from the domestic political Opposition that the decision over the presidential race between himself and the incumbent, Dmitry Medvedev, somehow predetermined the outcome and made the upcoming elections an empty formality.
Putin insisted that the people will have the final say over the country’s political future when they go to the ballot box in December to elect a new State Duma. The parliamentary elections will be a referendum on the job he and Dmitry Medvedev have been doing and on the platform of the United Russia party. Only if they continue to hold control of the legislature can the system he has put in place work.
Putin sees successful world-class statesmen like Churchill, Roosevelt or de Gaulle as being philosophers as well as politicians, and we see in this interview that he has himself thought unusually deeply about how the institutions of state should evolve. It is an interesting and open question where he is leading the country – down the road of the presidential system like the French Republic, which the constitution of the Russian Federation seems to enshrine; or in a new direction, towards the British cabinet with the center of political gravity in the legislature.
His refusal to modify the Constitution to remove the limits of the presidency to two consecutive terms was followed by his own move down to lead the cabinet of ministers, or Government. It is curious that one hardly ever hears in Russian political commentary what this change in roles meant for the prospects of the respective institutions. And surely we hear still less today from commentators on what the move of Dmitry Medvedev, vested with leadership of the United Russia party and with a presumed majority, means for the future.
The Russian head of state, like a constitutional monarch, is the ultimate source of executive power. The President enjoys the power to dismiss ministers (with the sign-off of the Prime Minister). And yet, as Putin has made plain, a competent and effective government is only one which enjoys a parliamentary majority, which a President would overrule at his own risk and peril.
At the same time, there is another feature of democratic institutions about which Putin’s statements in the interview can legitimately raise concerns, namely his understanding of political parties and multi-party elections.
Putin explicitly cites the experience of Ukraine with a great many parties in parliament and a government unable to rule effectively as an example of where excessively liberal rules of participation in elections work against the very institutions of democracy. He tells us that the multi-party system is one of those areas where it would be foolhardy to follow Western practices uncritically, as Russians have often done in the past. He also points admiringly to the way the United States manages to narrow the alternation in power to just two parties, yet give a popular impetus to the process through primaries.
But his remarks on how United Russia is renewing itself and the future Duma membership suggest undue respect for Soviet traditions, namely cooptation of people from all walks of life. He mentions specifically, the inclusion in the party’s electoral lists of persons put forward by NGOs, youth, women’s, professional organizations and trade unions. This may have been appropriate in a legislative body which convened for only a brief session and was used to ratify or rubber stamp draft laws placed before it by the executive power. But it is not a promising solution for the development of genuine democratic institutions. We see no mention here of professional politicians (very often lawyers) put forward by a grass-roots party organization. In his thinking, party politics is clearly a work in progress.
Although Putin characterized the foreign policy he would pursue as non-confrontational, he left no doubt that he is ready to push back against criticism from abroad which he deems to be unwarranted or malicious. And in almost every instance, it is clear that behind his veiled words stands the United States as the country’s greatest detractor.
To those who say that his Russia has ‘imperial ambitions,’ Putin says: “mind your own business, deal with inflation, with the increasing government debt or with obesity – ultimately, just do something useful.’
It is not difficult to make out in his words the view that in acting as the world’s gendarme the United States is only doing itself much harm. Russia, he says, does not put on ‘superpower airs’ and does not seek to impose its will where the business at hand is of no concern to it.
Remarks like these are not likely to win him any admirers in Washington.
Russia under Putin’s future stewardship will continue to pursue its path of development, to improve people’s living standards. Its defense capabilities will flow from a growing economy.
The vision is distinctly non-threatening and yet self-assured. The question will be whether a new administration in Washington will be able to trim its own expectations of subservience from its talking partners and do business with a realist, non-ideological and somewhat democratic Russia under Vladimir Putin.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2011
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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University. His latest book Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12 is scheduled for publication in April 2013 and will be available from Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.