THE GLOBAL PLAYER

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Putin’s legacy and Russia’s global future

Putin regards foreign policy as the primary condition for policy-making in general. Russia, with its territories and resources, is viable only as a global player. In 2007, Putin has attempted to firmly establish his understanding of the state as the basic concept for Russia’s future leaders.


Our person of the year is Vladimir Putin. In our view, his influence in 2007 was not restricted to the task of stabilizing the situation in Russia. It extended far beyond Russia.

In this, his last year as president, his qualities as a politician came to the fore: the inclination to take substantial risks, the art of shocking a rival with a mutually advantageous proposal, the ability to go it alone. In 2007, all this came together in the form of real political drive.

This drive led many to question whether Putin would indeed step down in 2008. The third term topic has been discussed all year. These doubts persist; not even Dmitri Medvedev’s nomination as a presidential candidate has dispelled them. For Russia, this is natural enough: we’re inclined to suspect every leader of wanting to remain in power forever. However, it appears that Putin has not spent the past year trying to secure a third term for himself, in whatever form. His objective was far more substantial: making several fundamental decisions and performing several significant actions that will determine Russia’s future policy as a state which is European in its culture and globally influential.

The outside world

The first noticeable move was Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in February, where he clearly defined the basic concepts of Russia’s foreign policy course. He acted alone, altering his speech on the fly, striving to persuade the West that no country can dictate its will to all other countries with the majority’s silent consent. In the modern world, global stability can only be assured if each nation’s foreign policy decision-makers strive to understand and consider the interests of other nations. Russia is aware of “some tension” worldwide, and does not intend to lose any more of its strategic military arsenals. Before Munich, Putin had mostly attempted to maneuver cautiously and negotiate with the West. After Munich, Russia’s strategic bombers resumed regular long-range patrol flights and the Navy performed its first long-distance sortie for many years. This move toward a new form of foreign policy – network policy bolstered by military resources – was later continued with respect to the issues of Kosovo, Iran, and North Korea.

Then there was Russia’s assault on the International Olympic Committee, leading to the decision that the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi. This move is neither mandatory nor risk-free, but Putin appears to believe that in order to keep in shape, Russia needs some binding international commitments. Besides, Sochi’s successful bid provided great publicity for Russia among other fast-growing developing nations.

The most important decisions of 2007 were made later, within Russia. Yet it should be emphasized that in the absence of these foreign policy moves, the domestic moves might well have been different. If Putin hadn’t staked a claim for Russia in the global game, he may have been more vulnerable to the demands of his colleagues in the Kremlin’s non-liberal “siloviki” (security and law enforcement) faction.

This is an important point to note in evaluating Putin’s domestic policies. In his view, the state is primarily a player in the global political and economic market, with the capacity to win. Those Russian citizens who condemn Putin’s policies fail to grasp how important this external positioning is for him. With his background as a silovik, he regards foreign policy as the primary condition for policy-making in general. He knows better than anyone that Russia, with its territories and resources, is viable only as a global player. This is Putin’s fundamental point of disagreement with the ultra-liberal understanding of the state as a “night watchman.” With his Munich speech and the Olympics project, he attempted to firmly establish his understanding of the state as the basic concept for Russia’s future leaders.

Russia

Putin delayed the start of the successor combination until autumn. This is more than a transfer-of-power plan, and more than an attempt to strengthen his party’s presence in the Duma. Within this combination, Putin is endeavoring to rapidly complete the second part of the task aimed at reinforcing Russia’s position in the international arena: the economic part of the task. He is speeding up the process of establishing or consolidating strategic assets in all sectors that are esential to strong positioning in foreign affairs. In summer 2007, he established the Unified Aviation Corporation and the Unified Ship-Building Corporation. In autumn, he established Russian Technologies and RosAtom. Now it’s becoming clear that a consolidation of assets in the non-ferrous metals sector is also inevitable. This is the policy aimed at establishing a framework of strategic companies. Former prime minister Mikhail Fradkov’s opposition to this policy was the main reason for his dismissal.

Moreover, Putin is striving to retain unconditional control over Russia’s accumulated financial resources. Alexei Kudrin’s promotion to deputy prime minister was a clear signal of Putin’s resolve to use state finances to develop the economy, in line with geopolitical ambitions.

Domestic politics – that is, the elections – should not interfere with that. A modern empire cannot be closed-off and undemocratic. Putin have the more conservative or less liberal part of the siloviki faction a chance to test themselves in public politics, within the Just Russia party project; he decided to use public politics as the second argument (after Fradkov’s dismissal) in the siloviki faction’s battles over the next president’s identity. He decided to head United Russia’s candidate list, and started assuring citizens that “we must win.” It’s unlikely that he meant defeating the Communists or the Union of Right Forces. He needed a parliament dominated by United Russia, capable of overseeing the next president (if he fails to win the siloviki power struggle); he also needed a personal victory (the nation’s support) in order to promote the kind of president who won’t require any oversight.

This victory in the Duma elections was achieved. Then came the real blitz. Apparently, the siloviki power struggles became too intense; and without even waiting for its own congress, the winning party (United Russia) approached Putin, proposing Dmitri Medvedev as a candidate. Putin easily approved this candidacy. But then Medvedev suddenly proposed that Putin himself should become prime minister after the election. If viewed strictly in terms of pure public politics, this seems bizarre. But if we recall that this has coincided with the arrest of Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak, and an indirect attack on Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, this hasty identification of the next prime ministery can only be interpreted as a signal that the battle is over. Everyone can lay down their weapons.

No one knows whether Putin will become Medvedev’s prime minister. Even Putin himself probably doesn’t know – as he mentioned in public the other day. Neither can we say anything about whether he’ll want to become president again some day. Some have suggested that Putin will be seeking some sort of position related to foreign policy. But this much is clear: this extraordinary person will continue striving to strengthen Russia’s positions in the global economic and political system, using that well-known principle: “If you wish for peace, be prepared for war.”

Over time, economic mechanisms will play an increasingly important role in making Russia stronger at the international level. A convertible ruble, a freely-accessible commodities market, rapid development of the Russian stock market: these plans, which sometimes seem absurd, are part of the project promoted by the liberal bloc in Putin’s team.

The process of establishing state corporations also fits in here. Against the backdrop of this process, it seems odd to hear Putin say that Russia will not take the path of state capitalism. Why are we creating state corporations, then? But the assumption (according to a repeatedly-stated but still not entirely clear plan) is that the state corporations will be publicly floated, becoming public-state corporations eventually.

This privatization process is sure to be one of the most important trends over the next few years. Once it is done, we’ll finally have a class of major property-owners; and the decades-long operation aimed at transforming the communist USSR into democratic Russia will be completed.

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