On Putin’s Legitimacy and his foreign policy
By Vladimir Shlapentokh
Leader Legitimacy throughout Russian History
For the rulers and leading institutions of any nation, at any time, obtaining and possessing legitimacy in the eyes of others is of the utmost importance. Legitimacy is simultaneously a simple and a complicated concept, reflecting the belief (or disbelief) of people in the right of their bosses to hold certain positions—whether that of tsar, president, CEO or chairman of a department—granting them the right of command over their citizens or subordinates. The history of almost every nation tells of dramatic episodes related to the legitimacy of leaders. The gripping events in current Russian political processes revolve profoundly around Putin’s legitimacy, not only in the eyes of the Russians but those of the international community as well, since much of the world sees winning a truly democratic election as a necessary step towards legitimacy to govern.
Prior to the 19th century, only two tsars had worries reminiscent of those held by Putin: Boris Godunov and Katherine the Great. If we are to believe Pushkin’s drama (the historical sources are ambivalent on its credibility), Godunov knew that many Russians believed him culpable in the murder of the boy Dmitry, the single legitimate heir of the tsar Ivan the Terrible. After Pushkin, not even Godunov himself could overcome the lack of belief in his legitimacy, with the vision of “bloodied boys” in his eyes, even while on his death bed. Katherine the Great, who participated in the murder of her husband, the legitimate tsar (via birth/family lineage) Peter the Third, was afraid of the people who claimed to have a legal basis to take the Russian throne. One of them—possibly princess Tarakanova—was kidnapped inItaly and remained either in prison or at a convent for the rest of her life.
These examples are in the minority in the Russian history; the legitimacy of their own rule never became an issue for many Soviet leaders. Indeed, typically, as soon as the Soviet politician established himself at the top of the political hierarchy, he could come to believe, almost as if he was a new monarch, that his power was sacred. A powerful ideology and a strong party whom the leader represented were an effective equivalent to Western democratic procedures, and the legitimacy of the Soviet leader was accepted not only by the Soviet people but also by Western politicians. Churchill and Roosevelt never cast doubt on the legitimacy of Stalin, despite his reputation as a cruel tyrant. The public essentially considered a new party leader elected by the Politburo and confirmed by the Central Committee to be as legitimate as the democratically elected presidents of Western countries.
Nikita Khrushchev’s dismissal from his high-ranking position was a clear deviation from the Soviet principle, which supposed that his position was a life-long appointment. The members of the Politburo were even afraid to raise questions about Brezhnev’s replacement when the General Secretary was on his death bed, having practically lost all his wits, while the country was, in some ways, run by his nurse.
Contrary to most Soviet leaders, Putin has never, at any time during his 12 years in power, been able to claim full legitimacy as a leader. The progress of democracy across the world, together withRussia’s own experience of giddy democracy in the late 80s and early 90s, made it impossible for Putin to dismiss democratic procedures in the same way as previous Soviet leaders.
Putin’s Absorption with His Legitimacy
Putin was concerned with this lack of concrete legitimacy from the very beginning of his tenure as president. It was evident that his appointment by Yeltsin and the election he won, sans a serious rival, were a flimsy basis for the legitimacy of his power. In September 1999, only two percent of Russians supported Putin as an eventual president. To compensate for his lack of presidential legitimacy, Putin and his supporters created an ideology that praised him as the man who saved the nation from disintegration. The war with Chechen separatists, which he launched as premier minister, also served this purpose well in 1999. In addition, many people inRussiaare convinced that the Kremlin and people in the FSB were behind the series of four apartments buildings that were burned down inMoscowand Volgodonsk in September 1999, with one thousand victims, although official propaganda attributed these fires to the work of Chechen terrorists. Putin used incidents like these to strengthen his assertion that he was/could be the one to rescueRussiafrom separatism and disorder. Besides his laurels as the savior who keptRussiafrom disintegration, the high oil prices that allowed Putin to raise the standard of living in the country considerably also helped him to countervail the dubious basis of his legitimacy.
However, even in the first years of his presidency, Putin looked to the future, searching for ways to secure his legitimacy when his second term expired. By 2008, he would easily have been able to exploit his absolute power and high popularity in the country to change the Constitution, just as other post-Soviet leaders like Alexander Lukashenko or Islam Karimov had done, to secure his own election to a third term of office. Putin, however, was much too concerned with how the legitimacy of this exploitative move would be seen in the eyes of the Western public, so he opted for a risky maneuver instead: having Dmitry Medvedev, an obscure politician, become the new president for the next term, “holding the throne” until Putin could once again “legitimately” return to power—which will happen in March 2012. Medvedev’s first edict was to expand the term of the president from four to six years, clearly serving Putin’s long-term plan. This move created the framework for Putin to legally serve as president ofRussiafor another 12 years, until 2024.
Putin’s Foreign Policy and his Legitimacy
Putin’s determination to hold the presidential office for as long as possible has had a great impact on his foreign policy. Putin was concerned with one major objective in shaping Russia’s relations with foreign countries: to use Russian foreign policy as an ideological instrument, largely to secure his own legitimacy—both domestically and internationally. A second real goal was to promote foreign trade activity for the major Russian oil and gas companies, like Gasprom. This goal also has a personal dimension, since Putin and his inner circle have direct material interests and links to these companies. This entanglement stands in stark contrast with the socio-politico-economic contexts in which the foreign policy considerations of various previous Soviet leaders—whose foreign policy was never influenced by their own material considerations—were made.
At the same time, the major foreign policy function of former Soviet leaders—the expansion ofRussia’s geopolitical role on the world stage—only plays a minor role in Putin’s foreign policy. Of course, Putin would be happy to ruleRussia, similar to his Soviet predecessors, as a superpower with a permanent quest for expansion. By relying on oil as his major geopolitical weapon, though, Putin (seemingly since very beginning of his tenure) has assumed that Russian military power, even with all the additional money he has spent on the army, cannot even remotely claim to have the military parity with the United States that had been a source of pride for previous Soviet leaders. Even the war with tinyGeorgiain 2008 was humiliating for the Russian army.
Confrontation with the external world, for show—together with praising stability—became the major stuff of official propaganda. TheUSA, of course, was number one on the list of Russian enemies. Anti-American propaganda has always been Putin’s main tool for sustaining his legitimacy as the defender of Russian interests. Putin has carefully calibrated public opinion’s degree of animosity towardAmerica, raising or diminishing it to his advantage, depending on context. For instance, during the mass protests against his regime in December, 2011, he raised his degree of hostility towardAmericain his public statements.
Indeed, Putin’s administration, for the purpose of xenophobic propaganda meant to legitimize the regime, has even included countries like England, Poland and the former Russian republics like Ukraine, Belorussia, the Baltic republics and, of course, Georgia in its roster of enemies.
Post-Stalin Soviet leaders, preferring to play the card of the defender of the peace for their ideological purposes, rarely used the praise of aggression in public propaganda.Afghanistanis a typical example. The 1980 invasion of this country was hushed in the Soviet media from the very beginning. The same had been true of the military actions inHungaryin 1956 andCzechoslovakiain 1968. In contrast, Putin’s regime tried to exploit their miserable war against littleGeorgiaby framing it as a great success of the Russian military machine.
It is remarkable that Putin has not focused on using all of his opportunities to consolidate political influence in the world, even in interactions with the former Soviet republics. Instead he has put pure economic calculations (mostly related to oil and gas exports) ahead of political considerations. This tendency is clearly evident in his interactions with theUkraineandBelorussia. When theKirgizgovernment askedMoscowto send troops to restore order in 2010—with no objections from the international community—the Kremlin rejected this opportunity to expand its military presence inCentral Asia.
From the beginning, the confrontational element in Putin’s foreign policy has depended a lot on the attitudes of foreign governments toward Putin’s regime. If Western foreign leaders do not cast any doubt about the democratic foundation of his regime or his personal power, the Kremlin downgrades its argumentative stance with them. After their meeting inSloveniain 2001, President George Bush’s famous words about Putin as a straightforward and trustworthy man were of immense importance to Putin. Bush, as the leader of the Western world, issued a sort of internationally accepted positive declaration about the Russian leader’s legitimacy. Bush’s statement about Putin was the brightest event in the first few years of Putin’s presidency.
It is not amazing, therefore, that Putin, as the head ofRussia, was clearly inclined to see theUSAas almost a friendly state. At that time, Putin declared that “never the relations withAmericawere so good as now.” Within hours of the attacks onNew YorkandWashingtonin September 2001, Putin was on the phone with George W. Bush. In addition, Putin’s TV address was full of compassion for the American people. He uttered, “in the name ofRussia, I want to say to the American people—we are with you.» During this period, Putin decided to corroborate with theUSAon several important issues, such as support for the American war inAfghanistan. He did not object to the installation of the American air base inKirgizstan, which was an unbelievable act of a friendship for a Russian politician.
Crucial Events in the History of Putin’s Regime: the Orange Revolutions
In the first five years of his tenure, Putin evidently felt quite comfortable basking in the light of the savior of the country, and believed that his legitimacy as the rightful leader was cemented in the minds of the Russian people and the international community. The Orange revolutions inTbilisiin 2003 andKievin 2004 broke the Kremlin’s feelings of almost absolute omnipotence. After these revolutions, Putin’s regime drastically changed its domestic policies, and started an intensive process of de-democratization.
Revolutions abroad, whatever their nature—nationalist, socialist or conservative—have always generated fear in the dominant elites of various countries. TheU.S.is no exception. Consider the “Red scare” of the 1920s; it was caused by fear of the impact the October revolution would have on the American people.
Russian history is full of examples that show how a revolution in a given country influenced the course of events in other countries. Katherine the Great was terribly afraid of the French revolution, while Nikolas the First was concerned about the effects of the Hungarian rebellion in 1848, and Brezhnev was scared by the Czech Spring in 1968. In the opposite direction, the Russian revolution of 1917 exerted an immense impact on developments inWestern Europe,Americaand Asia, while Gorbachev’s revolutionary Perestroika was behind the radical changes in East Europe and horrible events such as the Tiananmen Square massacre inChinain 1989.
The revolutions inGeorgiaandUkrainethat pushed these countries toward democratically-elected governments whose legitimacy was irreproachable became a permanent source of irritation to Putin. In these revolutions, he saw a call to the Russian masses to follow their examples. In fact, the existence of a true democratic regime in Georgia, a core Soviet republic (the Baltic republics that became part of the Soviet Union two decades after Georgia do not occupy the same status in the mind of the Kremlin),represented a constant challenge to Putin’s legitimacy. In his TV talk with the Russians on December 14, 2011, Putin spoke about the developments inKievmany years ago with the same emotions and vehemence as he had in the aftermath of the developments on Maydan square inKievin November and December of 2004. On December 24, 2011, the Kremlin organized a special meeting aimed at attacking the concept of the Orange revolution, as if the developments inKievhad only recently occurred.
Putin bear’s an intense animosity toward Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president who emerged as the elected leader following the Georgian revolution in 2003, and who has successfully run a truly democratic country since then. Putin has an almost physiological aversion to the Georgian president (his hatred of Victor Yushchenko, who became Ukrainian president in 2004, was somewhat less passionate). Only Senator McCain, who was very critical of Putin during the American presidential campaign in 2008 and who promised the fate of Colonel Qaddafi to the Russian leader, shares Saakashvili’s intense hatred of Putin. Putin, in relation to this animosity, promised the Georgian president “to hang him by the balls” and declared that the American senator who “relishes and can’t live without the disgusting, repulsive scenes of the killing of Gaddafi” became a “nut” after spending several years in a pit as a Vietnamese prisoner.
The war againstGeorgiain 2008 was a war of an authoritarian regime against a democratic one—similar to the several wars that reactionaryRussialed against foreign champions of democracy, from the Hungarian revolutionaries in 1848 to the Czech liberals in 1968.
The Orange Revolutions in Kiev and Tbilisi as the Western Rehearsal of Russian Regime Change
TheOrangerevolutions, in and of themselves, looked dangerous to Putin. However, his hatred of them was multiplied by his conviction that they were all staged by the West, which he believes views these uprisings as rehearsals for doing the same thing inRussia.
Putin’s belief in the West as the power behind allOrangerevolutions, in the past as well as in the future, lies in his firm belief that the masses are unable to defend their own rights and fight for democratic principles by themselves.Moscowaccepted this view almost immediately with respect toGeorgiaandUkraine, as well asKirgizstan’s so-called tulip revolution. Russian officials, including Putin, also explained the recent Arab spring, particularly inEgypt, in the same fashion.
This view is shared by most of the Russian ruling elite, along with many Russian intellectuals. The mass protest actions in Russiado not seem to have changed Putin’s “theory” of the origins of the social movement in the contemporary world. In two talks in December 2011—one at a meeting of his political allies and another on his talk show—Putin denigrated and derogated his compatriots as never before. He likened the participants of the protest actions to foolish and chattering monkeys, bandarlogs from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. Putin described the protesters as pawns of the opposition leaders, used in attempt to destabilize the country. In order to humiliate protest participants even more, he labeled their white ribbons “condoms.”
Putin declared that theUSAis behind the protest actions inRussia. He directly accused Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of creating the anti-regime manifestations inRussia, asserting that she had sent “a signal” to “some actors in our country.” He insisted that that the participants “were paid for coming” by foreign agents seeking to undermineRussia. Putin said that non-governmental organizations who accept foreign grants were traitors akin to Judas Iscariot. He asserted that student participants “were paid and were herded like cattle by their leaders.” In the same show, he accused unidentified Russians of working for foreign interests: «There are people who have Russian passports but work for the interests of a foreign state, for foreign money.”
Some Changes in Foreign Policy
After 2005, with theOrangerevolutions Putin’s foreign policy became somewhat more confrontational. By all accounts, this course will continue following the December 2011 events inRussia.
In order to help strengthen Putin’s legitimacy, the Kremlin has chosen an eclectic foreign policy whose individual moves are almost impossible to predict. On one side,Moscowavoided serious confrontation with theUSAafter the Orange revolutions, and did not seriously challenge the fundamental aspects of American foreign policy in any particular sensitive area—not in Central Asia, the Middle East orNorth Africa. The Russian-Georgian war, despite open American support of president Saakashvili, only created some very brief tensions in Russian-American relations. Additionally,MoscowandWashingtonhave no deep contradictions in such areas as the fight against international terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the world.
Still, Putin must maintain some regular confrontations with the USA, as these are necessary for sustaining his legitimacy as a national leader. The Anti-Missile Defense is most often used as a way of irritating theUSA, and as evidence of Putin’s concerns aboutRussia’s defense, even if most independentMoscow military experts derogate the official fear of American missile attacks againstRussia as a pure bluff.
At the end of 2011, the problem of the legitimacy of Putin’s rule was sharply and unexpectedly exacerbated by three events: 1) Putin’s brazen declaration on September 24th of his intention to swap jobs with President Dmitry Medvedev without consulting voters, which upset many Russians, especially the educated and/or residents of Moscow; 2) The parliamentary election on December 4th, which the liberal community considered fraudulent, and which triggered an unexpected outburst of protests in Moscow, and to a lesser extent in the provinces; 3) the congregation of around fifty thousand people, gathering in defense of democracy, in Bolotnaia square on December 10, 2011, which the country and the whole world viewed as sensational by the standards of Putin’s Russia. This protest gathering revealed that the educated class ofMoscow (Russian analysts uses the term “creative class,” which also is in circulation in theUSA) woke up and decided to defend democratic values and, more specifically, honest election practices.
However, the apex, as of now, of the legitimacy question was reached on December 24th, when a hundred thousand people met onSakharov Avenue. This mass gathering made the legitimacy of Putin’s presidency a key issue of Russian political life, as never before. While at the first meeting at Bolotnaia square the participants were mostly concentrated on contesting the rigging of the Duma’s election, the leading theme of the second meeting was the illegitimacy of Putin’s presidency. In fact, the target of the protesters onSakharov Avenue was the upcoming presidential election on March 4th, the outcome of which does not seem as certain, in light of recent events. TheSakharov Avenue meeting advanced Alexei Navalny, who has come to be known for his fight against corruption, as the clear leader of the fight for the legitimacy of power.
However, as of today, it seems that Putin will keep power into the next decade, utilizing a mixed strategy of offering some non-essential concessions to liberals, while using various devices to denigrate the leaders of the opposition and pit them against each other. Putin will try to continue to rely on his monopoly on TV broadcasts, which by barring access to the opposition, suggests that there he has no serious competitor, and that he will be able to sustain the stability and the relatively decent standard of living that currently exists in the country. Putin and the ruling elite hope that the protest movement, with its lack of one charismatic leader and the great amount of antagonism between its different factions, will eventually disintegrate and lose its momentum. The Kremlin is placing even more hope on the big divergence betweenMoscowand the provinces. Even if one were to suppose that the crowd of liberal, educated people in theMoscowsquares reflects the mood in the city, they can, in no way, rely on the support of the provinces, whose hatred of the capital is a well known fact. Indeed, according to the December poll of the Levada Center, only 15 percent of Russians mentioned the protests against vote-rigging in the parliamentary elections as an important event in 2011, which was much less than the number of the Russians who considered the sinking of the tourist ship “Bulgaria” to be a development much more deserving of attention (49), and even the switch to summer time (19), or the birth of the 7 billionth person on Earth (16).]
Putin will also have the gigantic governmental apparatus, which is able to mobilize a huge army of state employees to cast votes for him, at his disposal. If necessary, this same apparatus can use as suggests Andrei Illarionov, a former aide to Putin, tactics, including murder, to repress Putin’s opponents. The corrupted bureaucracy of the country, which offers benefits to so many, also ensures that many people will be against governmental change for fear of losing the benefits they receive through their entanglement in the mass web of corruption and fear of repercussions for these practices. Even ordinary people who participate in corruption—those who hold modest positions such as that of teacher, doctor or even low-rank clerk—will be reluctant to start a new life without their habitual illegal income. As an ultimate resource, Putin can resort to the use of the army, police and, in extreme situations, the nationalist hordes, which are permanently under the supervision of the Federal Service of Security. He can even call for help from Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, who will send his thugs to Moscow. Taking all of this into consideration, we can predict that Putin, without any real rivals on the ballot, will be reelected as president on March 4th, even if we suppose that vote-counting will be mostly honest.
Yet, despite all of these resources, Putin and his entire regime will never regain the public confidence in his legitimacy that he and his friends enjoyed in the early 2000s. This seriously diminishes the Kremlin’s ability to cope with the growing discontent in the country and avert mass rebellion. Hoping to stay in power for several years ahead, and being afraid of prosecution if he leaves office, Putin will be fully concentrated, in these next years, on fending off all accusations about his illegitimacy as the leader. He will build up his relations with any influential country, if the relationship can fulfill his desire to make his power and his fortune safe. The American government should always take this into account in shaping its policy towardMoscow.