Putin as a perfect politician
Vladimir Putin provides us with an excellent example of a politician whose attitude towards ideology is instrumental to his political longevity. He has shown that in the fight between ideology and political expedience, e.g., to maintain authority and control within the country, or to achieve geopolitical ambitions in the international arena, ideology will almost always lose the battle. Indeed, it is a pragmatic move for politicians to be able to alter their ideologies when circumstances call for modifications. At any moment, politicians can disregard important elements of their initial views which they had previously publically maintained as being of vital importance for society. In some cases, old slogans have been completely or partially replaced with new ones, which for political gain have often been garnered from one’s ideological rivals.
In maintaining the authoritarian rule in Russia, Putin chose a zero tolerance policy toward any substantial opposition to his regime. This policy explicates Putin’s attitudes toward the three major political forces in Russia which might have potentially threatened Putin’s reign: the Communists, the nationalistic extremists, and the Liberals. In applying this policy toward the opposing parties, Putin kept them in a state of political impotence for the reason that in a case of political upheaval, any of these players could reveal themselves to be the downfall of the regime.
Meanwhile, the official ideology created problems concerning Putin’s political adversaries because he was unable to offer the country his own original ideology, or in contemporary Russian parlance, a “new national idea” which would be able to unite the decaying nation. Accentuated through the televised propaganda, the ideology of Putin’s Kremlin was an eclectic cocktail of political platforms with such ingredients as the Communist philosophy, Russian Nationalism, and a smattering of Liberalism for good measure. However, in the willingness to preserve the regime’s power and amassed property by any means, the Kremlin had to carry out harsh actions against the political players who shared elements of its own assorted ideology. Thus, the Kremlin persecuted the liberals who followed Putin’s lead by praising the benefits of private property and a market economy. The authorities also closely watched the nationalistic extremists, thwarting any attempts made to expand their activities beyond the limits set by the Kremlin, ironic considering how many times during the last decade in which Putin showed how dear to him the nationalistic ideas were. However, it was the Kremlin’s overtly aggressive actions against the Communist Party during the region election on October 11, 2009 that provided a perfect example of the importance of political expediency over ideology. Indeed, the commonalities between the ideologies of the regime and the Communist Party are particularly great.
Let us compare the attitudes of Putin and the leaders of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation toward Stalin. Putin’s positive attitudes toward Stalin became clear almost immediately after his appearance in the Kremlin. As a matter of fact, during the nine years of his stay in power, Putin said almost nothing negative about Stalin, and used several occasions to mention Stalin in a positive light when he spoke domestically. The leader of the CPRF, Gennady Zyuganov, was not behind Putin in his benevolent attitudes toward Stalin. Like Putin, the leader of the current Communist Party justified all of Stalin’s actions before and during WWII by focusing on his crowning achievement which was the victory over Nazi Germany. Zyuganov praised Stalin as a man who succeeded in the various Soviet achievements in culture, education, and national politics, as well as an efficient manager who created a “strong industrial state with advanced science.”
Putin and Zyuganov both render themselves as the protectors of Russian society, its culture, traditions, and religion against the destructive Western forces. Both men have consistently spoken of Russia’s glorious history and missionary role in the world. Both men liked to call attention to Russia’s role in saving the world from the Nazis, as well as from Genghis Khan and Napoleon. Like Putin, Zyuganov also considers the collapse of the Soviet empire as Russia’s biggest tragedy, and both men intend on enabling the restoration of the geopolitical role of Russia.
Remarkable is how close both politicians are in their attitudes toward the Orthodox Church. Putin treats the church as his major ally, and assures that it is the beneficiary of his numerous privileges, and Zyuganov also takes every opportunity to show his respect for the Orthodox Church. Zyuganov and the present day Kremlin have made loyalty to the church and religion an essential part of their public ideologies. Like Putin, Zyuganov is full of hatred for the West, particularly the United States. They rival one another in their invectives against America, and both portray the U.S.A. as a money grubbing country which aims for world domination.
Like Zyuganov, Putin never expressed his criticism of the Soviet political system, and neither he nor his ideologues denied the accusation that Putin’s political system was similar to the Soviet regime in many respects. It is not debatable, even among pro-Kremlin journalists, that Putin turned his party, United Russia, into a monopolistic political force akin to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and the State Duma into a body identical to the Soviet parliament Verkhovnyi Soviet. Putin has practically reverted back to the Soviet style of election, while Zyuganov, being the opposition, fought for an open campaign and honest election. However, even in demanding a free election in Putin’s Russia, Zyuganov never accused the USSR of “socialist democracy” with its preposterous one candidate ballot election.
Naturally, Zyuganov and Putin have also praised contemporary China as being a leading player of the Communist Party responsible for the phenomenal economic progress in the country, though both politicians have conveniently neglected to mention a word about China’s authoritarian regime and the repression of the dissidents in the country. To the delight of the Communists, Putin restored the red flag as a banner for the Soviet army, reinstated the Soviet anthem, and even arranged for history textbooks to portray the Soviet past in a misleadingly complimentary light.
The Communists and the current Russian leaders are all in agreement in their negative attitudes toward Khrushchev and his “thaw,” as well as toward Perestroika, the anti-Communist revolution of August 1991, and the collapse of the USSR. During his November 2009 interview in Spiegel, Medvedev refused to give a positive appraisal of Gorbachev “because the time of his leadership coincided with the breakup of our state and a considerable portion of our people associate the demise of our country with his activities.” It is notable that on November 1, 2009, Medvedev awarded a special medal to former Soviet Defense Minister Marshal Dmitry Yazov, a leading figure among the conspirators who sought the restoration of the Communist regime and who were arrested after their failure. Putin and Zyuganov are very close in their assessment of Yeltsin’s rule, and either personally or through spokespeople referred negatively to Yeltsin’s regime and “the arrogant 1990s.”
The most significant distinction between Putin and Zyuganov lies in their attitudes toward the economy. While Putin considers himself as a supporter of private property and the privatization of state assets, the Russian Communists want the renationalization of major branches of the economy. However, Putin’s positions on economic issues do not fall as far as they appear from the Communist views. In recent years, Putin has created “state corporations” such as Russian Technology which deals mostly with the production and export of weapons, the United Airplane Building Corporation, the United Shipbuilding Corporation, and the Russian nuclear industry.
More significant is the fact that Putin’s personal representatives includes the board of directors from major gas and oil companies (among other key business players) who guarantee the Kremlin control over these businesses. In general, private business in Russia is entirely at the mercy of the Kremlin which has the power to destroy any company and has even gone so far as to incarcerate a major CEO, as was the case with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the head of Russian oil company Yukos. Systematic raiding and seizure of private property under Putin made the ownership of private businesses as precarious as it was in feudal times, proving Communists wrong in their assertion that Putin was a great advocate of capitalism.
At first glance, it looks as though the Kremlin could be if not welcoming, at least tolerant to the Communist Party because of the ideological similarities between the two. This belief seems to be quite rational if one takes into account the fact that the Communist Party acts as a very mild opposition. Many leftist politicians and nationalists have regularly charged Zyuganov of conformism and servility before the Kremlin, accusations based on his apparent concerns about the perks due to him as the leader of a parliamentary faction.
However, with good reason the ruling elite believe that the Communist Party is potentially quite dangerous to the regime. Ignoring the similarity of many ideological principles between the two parties, it is presumed that the Communists would make the corruption in the Kremlin their key argument in the fight for power. They would disclose the size and location of the wealth of those who are at the helm of country, exposing Putin and his circle as the premier beneficiaries of the current regime. Currently, Communists talk about corruption in the country, but always in a very general way — never outright accusing existing officials in the highest echelon of power of any wrongdoing. If the Communists were to be involved in a real struggle for power, they could easily use their cadres to replace the current officials at all levels of bureaucracy. Indeed, the Communist Party has a network of cells in nearly all regions of the country. The regional party committees are an integral aspect of the Communist network, and could easily be put into play in the occasion of a political crisis. None of the other oppositional forces has such a network of local organizations as the Communist Party.
If the Communists, or any other political force in Russia, brought to the streets of Moscow 10,000 to 20,000 people demanding the resignation of Russian leaders, the regime would be doomed. The notorious OMON, a special police unit which can easily deal with the gathering of a few hundred protesters in Moscow, would be helpless against mass demonstrations of this size. The Kremlin is unlikely to dispatch the order to spill blood, dissimilar to the Iranian regime which did recently. It is also very likely that the police or the army would be too afraid to obey such commands if they were issued. Therefore, the Kremlin needs to prevent any mass protests by the opposition from happening in the first place.
The Communists enjoy serious support from the Russians. Their party has formally achieved modest successes in the presidential and parliamentary elections with no more than 10-12 percent of Russians supporting the party. If one is to take into account the direct hostility of the authorities to the Communist Party and their extensive use of “the administrative resource” against it during the elections, this number is quite important. The election data clearly does not reflect the real status of the Communist Party in the country. In October 2009, one-third of Russians held positive views on the Communist Party, with only 21 percent declaring negative feelings. Even among young people the prestige of the party is not small, as 20 percent hold positive views on Communists with one-third of the younger generation of Russians asserting that “the goals of the Communist Party reflect the interest [of] people like me.”
It is undeniable then, that if the media was to garner any real freedom in their coverage of politics, the number of sympathizers for the Communist Party would at least double. On November 7, 2009, the day of the October revolution, the Communists brought 150,000 people to the street despite the hostility of the authorities. The Communist demonstration was particularly impressive in Moscow where red flags fluttered on the many balconies.
The origin of support for the Communists lies in the deep attachment many Russians have toward what can only be described as a social-democratic model, which is also supported by many people in West Europe. Russians stick to egalitarian principles, they support the state regulation of prices, salaries, state property for big enterprises and, of course, the consequent stability that comes from having a large government. As an assortment of data from 2008-2009 shows, the number of Russians who were attracted to various socialist ideas surpassed the advocates of the liberal agenda by 3-4 times. In 2008, almost two-thirds of the population voted for the revision of privatization programs which was initially introduced in the 1990s.
On average, the majority of Russians — 68 percent — consider the society “unfair” in regards to social inequality. The number rises to 73 percent among Russians with an advanced education, and even higher among the residents of Moscow at 79 percent. Of particular interest is the fact that 50 percent of Russians think that the Soviet society was more equitable than the current one. No less than 90 percent of Russians voted for completely free education and health service. Seventy-eight percent of Russians thought that the differences in personal income throughout the country were “too big” during 1999-2000.
Of no less importance for understanding why Russians are supportive of the Communist Party is the role that stability plays for the people. In 2008, fifty-six percent of Russians preferred to have “a small but stable income,” as opposed to the 21 percent who were willing to take a risk in order to receive a larger salary; Social justice and social equality are the trump cards for the Communists if they are determined to fight the regime.
The chances of survival and success of any oppositional forces in Russia depend not only on the support of the masses but also on the position of those that unofficially lead the nation, i.e., the Russian intelligentsia and the Russian professional class. The influence of the Communists among those with a higher education is quite impressive: 28 percent declared positive attitudes toward the Party, a considerable number; though the number of lower educated people in support of the Communists was more than twice that at 58 percent. The Communist Party also has a strong influence in the scientific communities throughout the country such as the Novosibirsk academic town. What more, among the more notable Communists, we find prominent people such as Nobel Prize winner Zhores Alferov, and famous theatre figure Nikolay Gubenko.
Of importance is the role of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the most well-known political prisoner in Russia. In the last three years, while incarcerated, Khodorkovsky was able to publish a number of articles in which he preached “the left turn,” a return to socialist principles and to the radical increase of the state role in the lives of the Russian people. Referring to various polls, Khodorkovsky frankly stated in 2005 that the “leftists will win, earlier or later,” and he vehemently predicted the victory of the KPRF. In 2005, he expressed regret that Zyuganov, who in 1996 had “the answers to all questions” which the country faced, did not become premier minister with Yeltsin as president. Three years later, Khodorkovsky has continued to stick to his conviction that Russia will become a leftist nation, seeing the global economic crisis and Obama’s victory in the United States as evidence that his prognoses is correct.
The world financial crisis of 2008-2009 strengthened the ideological position of the Russian Communists. During that time, their praise of the regulative role of the state and its part in public property did not look to be as obsolete and out of touch with the course of history as it had previously seemed to the Russian liberal critics of the Communist ideology only one year earlier. Under the impact of the crisis, many economists, social scientists, and Western politicians began openly to advocate the increase in the role of the State in the economy in addition to other spheres of society. The developments after 1989 in East Europe showed that the left forces, including the Communist parties (some of which had changed their names), played a much more important role in the political life than anybody had predicted before the collapse of the Communist system. Some authors had even begun to talk about “redeeming the Communist past and the regeneration of Communist parties in East and Central Europe.” The significant role of the leftist parties in the former Communist countries reflected a type of disillusionment with the developments after 1991. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2009 the number of people who approved “the change to [the] market economy” diminished from 87 to 79 percent in the Czech republic; 80 to 71 percent in Poland; 73 to 53 percent in Bulgaria; 76 to 50 percent in Lithuania; and 80 to 46 percent in Hungary. In Russia, the polls reported a drop from 54 to 50 percent; for Ukraine, 52 to 36 percent. What more, according to a BBC poll taken in October 2009 in 27 countries regarding the connection of the 20th anniversary of the fall of Berlin Wall, only 11 percent of the respondents said that “capitalism [was] working well.” Only in the United States and Pakistan were there more than one in five people who felt capitalism was a good system. On the other hand, there is very strong support around the world for governments to distribute wealth more evenly, which is backed by the majority of respondents in 22 of the 27 countries polled.
It is not surprising that Zyuganov immediately began to use this collective frame of mind in the West to legitimize the economic program of his Party as being quite modern. He even tried to use Barak Obama’s influence to raise the prestige of his economic view, and to show that both his and Obama’s economic plans were comparable. After the meeting with President Obama in Moscow on July 10, 2009, Zyuganov declared that he “had thoroughly studied the U.S. president’s anti-crisis program” and that he “liked it” and found it “socially oriented and primarily aimed at supporting poor people and enhancing the state’s role.”
Under Putin’s rule, the Kremlin has steadily tried to use various tactics to lure members of the Communist Party and its supporters to join other parties which are loyal to the regime. The task of converting new Party members has been assigned to Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of a pseudo-liberal Democratic Party which is claiming to be in opposition to the government. In 2006, Putin’s political technologists created a purportedly new Leftist Party headed by close friend Sergei Mironov. It is remarkable that the Kremlin has always tried to split the Communist Party from within.
While often covert political methods are implemented by the Kremlin to reduce the influence of the Communist Party, Russian rulers also use more direct and often abrasive ways to achieve this goal. Zyuganov and other leading members of the Party have very rarely been seen on mainstream television channels or in the most popular newspapers due to the relationship between the current regime and the mainstream media. At the same time, the Kremlin utilizes their ties with the official media outlets to regularly attack Communist politicians at all levels.
The obvious hostility of the Kremlin toward the Communist Party became unmistakable during the last regional and municipal elections on October 11, 2009. Zyuganov and other Party leaders were not allowed to speak during the election campaign in the republic of Mari-El, in Moscow, as well as other regions. The same methods of “black technology,” which were used to prevent or severely diminish elected people from other oppositional organizations from gaining public access, was also applied to the Communists. Under the most ludicrous of pretexts, the election commissions refused to register candidates of the Party, and large numbers of false ballots in favor of United Russia poured into the election boxes. The authorities also used blackmail and bribery of the electorate, followed by brazenly falsified results of the election carried out by the election committees.
Contrary to the dominant belief, Putin’s KGB experience encouraged not his allegiance to Soviet ideology, but simply the willingness and ability to perform any order from above, regardless of the ideological intentions of his superior. For just this reason, former KGB members adjusted to the new reality of post-Soviet Russia much better and faster than intellectuals and the Party apparatchiks. During the final decade of the KGB’s operation, one of the more sinister figures within the organization, Philipp Bobkov, was put in charge of the persecution of dissidents. After 1991, he quite effortlessly became the head of security in the empire of oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, one of the most despicable men in the eyes of Russian patriots. The irony of the connection between the two lays in the fact that Bobkov was the creator of the Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public only a few years before Perestroika in 1983, yet, that had in no way prevented him from serving directly under Gusinsky who was vice president of the World Jewish Congress. Many dozens of Putin’s KGB colleagues had also easily slipped into corrupted life as government officials and business men. Their ideological flexibility helped them to overcome the traditions of the KGB, which had been the least corrupted organization in Brezhnev’s Russia. Almost instantly Putin had changed from KGB agent to faithful aide of Leningrad’s mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, one of the most consistent and influential democrats during Perestroika. It was Putin who was assigned by his boss to be the organizer of Sobchak’s election campaign in 1995, in which the most aggressive liberal slogans were on display.
Without a doubt, Putin became one of most cynical politicians in Russian history. Stalin, who is closest to Putin in their ideological flexibility, still looks to be a person with some values, as Stalin was concerned about the power of the State and Russia’s geopolitical role in the world. Unlike Putin, Stalin was evidently concerned during the post-war period with the long-term perspectives of the Russian army, science, and the economy. Putin however, has shown that he is indifferent to the future of Russia. It is enough to cite his total apathy toward the status of science in the country to corroborate this idea. It is a near consensus among all independent analysts in Moscow that since Putin has been in power, Russia has become much weaker economically and militarily compared to the rest of the world and to where the country stood before Putin took over. No other Soviet leader after Stalin, including Brezhnev, has been as cynical about their personal power as Putin. Khrushchev, Andropov, and even Yeltsin look to be almost idealists in comparison.
It is only logical that as a politician, Putin is poised to embrace an eclectic ideology while refusing to be completely faithful to any one postulate. However, this assorted and unstable ideology is one of the weaknesses of his regime and the governing Party United Russia. As long as the oppositional forces are effectively muzzled, ideological cynicism is not a big problem for the ruling elite. But the situation can drastically change in the event of a resurgence of a politically conscious country, which might be expedited in cases of political crisis or a number of other circumstances.
Putin was blessed by the fact that the leaders of the Communist Party, and most importantly Zyuganov himself, turned out to be deeply uncharismatic conformists. Had more compelling and unconventional people been in charge of the Communist Party, the popularity of Putin’s regime might have been compromised. Still, the Russian Communist Party, despite its current humble role in Russian political life, remains to be a potentially dangerous regime player, which explains why the Kremlin severely restrains their activity despite the ideological similarities the current regime shares with the Communist Party.
It is well known that the major threat to political power stems often not from the adversary who holds diametrically opposite views, but from the rivals who share almost the same ideological position. The closer the ideological position is of a rival, the more intense the competition. If we were to address Soviet history, we will find quite a number of examples which illustrates this idea. Lenin despised the Mensheviks, who were Marxists, much more than the Socialist-Revolutionaries who were not. He detested those who were advocates of the revolution much more than the Constitutional Democrats (Kadets) who were reformists. But Lenin was much more furious about the Cadets than about the monarchists who supported the regime. Trotsky and Stalin shared the same leftist views on industrialization, particularly collectivization. In fact, with his brutal collectivization in 1929, Stalin followed Trotsky’s precepts while expelling his arch enemy from the country in the same year.
Indifferent to any ideology, Putin is an embodiment of a “perfect politician.” Though, at the same time his vacillating platform makes him a particularly dangerous adversary, it also creates possible grounds for compromise. The United States and the rest of the world should assume that there is no official ideological belief as it relates to the greatness of Russia and the importance of creating and sustaining a strong state, in the enmity of the West toward Russia, or in private property and a free market — which are deeply rooted in his mind and can become serious obstacles for Putin’s political maneuvers in both domestic or foreign affairs. Any decision by him will contribute to only one goal: to preserve his personal power, which he evidently plans to extend far beyond 2012, when he by all accounts will return to the presidency. However, the West should not dismiss the possibility of the emergence of a new Russian ideology which will combine nationalist and socialist ideas, since it was precisely this combination of ideologies which brought Hitler to power in Germany during the early 1930s.