We make no brief for Vladimir Putin as a democrat, but much of the U.S. commentary following the announcement that he will return to the Kremlin as president in 2012 is simplistic morality posing as political analysis.
A Sept. 28 New York Times editorial, for example, insisted that Putin, who “has made clear his disdain for democratic rights,” is casting out the “more liberal and Western-oriented” Dmitry Medvedev. According to a Sept. 26 Post editorial, “Vladimir Putin decided that he would like to be president again, and so he will be.”
But the complexities of Russian politics cannot be reduced to the whims of one man — however powerful he may be. As was clear from polemics in Russian newspapers before the Sept. 24 announcement, Putin’s return to the Kremlin is prompted in part by the preferences of Russia’s ruling class — top officials and the financial elite known as the oligarchy. As the leading pro-Medvedev advocate, Igor Yurgens, acknowledged, “influence groups” favoring Putin “turned out to be stronger.” In their eyes, and probably in Putin’s, the ever-tweeting Medvedev was never able to shed his image as an ineffectual political figure. In effect, Medvedev failed his four-year audition for a second term.
The Russian elite, including the Putin and Medvedev camps, seems to understand that the country’s economy urgently requires diversification away from its heavy dependence on oil and gas exports. The state must find other sources of revenue for its growing budget. As Putin warned recently, such reforms will require “bitter medicine,” including higher taxes on the business class, which has prospered grandly under a 13 percent flat tax while many Russians have fallen into poverty. The governing class, eyeing its own interests, wants the tougher and popular Putin to preside over these changes.
It may turn out, as some U.S. commentators have asserted, that Putin’s return is “bad news for the Russian people.” But opinion polls show that, after more than a decade of Putin’s leadership, a majority of Russians still do not associate him with the country’s “bad news.” The reason is clear to anyone who has followed Russia since the end of the Soviet Union: It was Putin who restored pensions, lifted wages and elevated living standards after the traumatic 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin’s policies impoverished the country.
And what about President Obama’s highly touted “reset”? The Russian expert at the Center for American Progress asserts that “Putin’s return next year will reverse all of these positive trends” and “is no good for the United States.” This may be so in the limited sense that the Obama administration unwisely based its reset primarily on Medvedev — while directing gratuitous insults at Putin, such as when Vice President Joe Biden told groups of Russians during his visit to Moscow this year that Putin should not return to the presidency. But the larger assumption that Putin’s return will mean a further diminishing of Russia’s democratic prospects is based on the false premise that Yeltsin, like Medvedev today, was a liberal democrat.
But it was the U.S.-backed Yeltsin who used tanks in 1993 to destroy an elected parliament, thereby reversing the democratization of Russia that began under Mikhail Gorbachev, a reversal accelerated under Putin. And while Medvedev has spoken often in the idioms of Western-style liberalism, it was Medvedev who took personal credit for using military force against Georgia in 2008 and then increasing military spending so sharply that his widely admired finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, resigned last month. Moreover, if Putin is determined to pursue retrograde policies, why would he promise to appoint the “more liberal” Medvedev as prime minister — an office Putin empowered during the past four years?
Indeed, given the real alternatives, and not those that Americans might prefer, why the assumption that Putin’s return to the Kremlin will be bad for Western interests? For example, The New York Times reported Sept. 28 that Western bankers and corporations welcomed the announcement as “a net positive for foreign investors.” It’s also noteworthy that from 2000 to 2008, when Putin was president, he made more important concessions to Washington than Medvedev has during the past four years — giving the Bush administration critical support in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; bowing to a new round of NATO expansion; swallowing the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; and agreeing to an expansion of Russian supply routes for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Those days of a yielding Putin, however, may be behind us. He said as early as 2002 that “the era of Russian geopolitical concessions is coming to an end.” What’s clear is that Putin’s future cooperation with Washington will depend on his understanding of Russia’s national interests and equally on Washington’s cooperation with Moscow, which, despite Obama’s heralded “reset,” has not yet involved any tangible American concessions.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation and writes a weekly online column for The Post. Stephen F. Cohen is a professor of Russian studies at New York University and the author, most recently, of “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives.”