Putin as Hamlet: a political leader’s fear of decision-making

The new Russian state has been created piecemeal, as the need arose. Now it is almost complete – and it’s turned out to be very similar to the Soviet state. What we have is a system of personal presidential rule camouflaged by democratic outward appearances.

The era of “serious” anti-democratic ideologies has passed. In the modern world, it’s hard to find anyone who’s opposed to democracy on principle, as the fascists and the monarchists were. Still less can there be any doubt that President Vladimir Putin and his team are proponents of democracy. So was his predecessor, needless to say; he actually led a democratic revolution.

In contemporary Russian society there are no substantial ideological alternatives to democracy – no integrated ideologies with their own plans for a non-democratic social order. But neither do we have the cultural and psychological ability to live in democratic conditions; on the contrary, what we have are centuries-old habits of submission, fear of making decisions on our own, fear of living without a strong guiding hand.

If a society has neither the ability to live in democratic conditions nor any ideological alternatives to democracy, what it ends up with is the kind of political system that’s developed in Russia and many other countries in the world today: a system of personal presidential rule camouflaged by democratic outward appearances, simulating democracy. Such a system does not take shape due to malicious intent; it is not planned. It arises of its own accord. Both Yeltsin and Putin have been impelled to create such a system by society itself – by life itself. Their individual personalities have not been the determining factor. One might say they had practically no other choice.

In fact, the task of building democracy can’t be a president’s task. After all, a head of state who sets himself this task would have to establish an opposition to remove him from power; he’d have to keep his own hands tied, and encourage criticism of himself. Such a task is unnatural; it is contrary to a human being’s normal instincts. Even the most sincerely pro-democracy ruler will inevitably strive to ensure that people obey his orders, don’t prevent him from working, and don’t create obstacles for him. He’ll always want to ensure that his successors will be people who won’t ruin everything he has achieved, and that his senior officials are people he’s comfortable working with, and that the people he considers scoundrels get their just deserts, and so on. If the citizenry is incapable of restraining him and prepared to submit to him, he will create an authoritarian system simply by acting on these normal human desires.

Neither Yeltsin nor Putin had any plan to “suppress democratic freedoms.” These freedoms have disappeared of their own accord as the presidents went about solving specific problems.

When Yeltsin ordered troops to fire on the government building, he certainly wasn’t fighting against democracy; in fact, he probably believed he was fighting for it. He only wanted to prevent the overbearing Ruslan Khasbulatov, the ungrateful Alexander Rutskoi, and the “red-brown” communist-nationalist opposition from taking power. Likewise, when he created a Constitution to suit himself, he wasn’t seeking to “restrict democracy.” He only wanted to prevent the parliamentary opposition from obstructing his efforts to implement the reforms he considered vital for Russia.

And when Putin eliminated independent television broadcasting, he wasn’t seeking to “restrict freedom of speech” – he only wanted to prevent television from being a weapon in the hands of the oligarchs, and to stop broadcasts of the “Kukly” (Puppets) political satire program, which insulted him. He didn’t want to “effectively eliminate federalism” – he only wanted to eliminate conditions that enabled incompetent or even criminal regional leaders to be elected, with the president unable to do anything about it. He wasn’t aiming to establish “a lawless environment and an unfavorable business climate” – he only wanted to get rid of the oligarchs who had gotten above themselves, plotting intrigues and getting in his way, and to send one particular individual, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to jail. He wasn’t aiming to “effectively eliminate the parliamentary system” – he only sought to have the parliament help him, not obstruct him, in the cause of “reviving Russia” and doubling GDP. All these are normal, “lawful” desires; although the president, like any human being, will inevitably have some selfish and “personal” motives mixed in with “idealistic” and “professional” motives.

And the entire vast state apparatus working for Putin doesn’t set itself the goal of “stifling democracy.” Each regional leader simply wants his region to keep up with other regions, not voting for any demagogues or enemies of the president he respects. Each prosecutor wants to be a a good, keen “sovereign’s eye.” At the same time, of course, each is also thinking of himself – his own career and prosperity. And so on, and so forth.

With a society incapable of democratic self-organization – when the very thought of electing a president who is neither the incumbent nor the person indicated by the incumbent seems frightening and revolutionary – every solution to every concrete problem confronting Yeltsin, Putin, and their appointees has naturally led us further away from democracy, toward our present-day political system, which re-establishes the basic contours of the Soviet system. Yeltsin and Putin may even have sincerely believed that their actions amounted to building democracy in Russia’s specific conditions, to which Western standards are inapplicable (or inapplicable as yet). When your path is a spiral, if not actually circular, you think you’re moving forward – but after a while you’re surprised to find that a long and difficult journey has led you back to where you started from, or almost the same place.

In effect, our journey is almost complete. We don’t have very far to go.

The first remaining task is to eliminate the constitutional provision that restricts the president to two consecutive terms in office. This task arises naturally in Russia’s present conditions – not necessarily due to any particular love of power on the president’s part. After all, here we have a popular president, in the prime of life, who has achieved a great deal. Indeed, why should he frantically seek a successor and an uncertain new job for himself – just because his predecessor, when writing the Constitution, imagined that eight years was a long time and he might not live to see the end of it? Why should the incumbent interrupt the implementation of his plans, or entrust it to someone else? Besides, the public doesn’t want Putin to go at all. It doesn’t even want to think about his departure.

The second remaining task is to take the United Russia project through to its logical conclusion: finalizing its status as the presidential party – with no alternatives to this party, just as there are no alternatives to the president himself. Once again, this is a natural and necessary task in our present circumstances. It will provide additional levers of governance, making it possible to delimit a circle of loyal individuals, dedicated to the common cause, and to create a personnel reserve. It will no longer be necessary to waste so much effort on all kinds of projects like establishing the Motherland (Rodina) party, then splitting Motherland, then searching for ways to dispose of Motherland’s remnants. Our society will finally stop going into a fever during elections. And there are no insurmountable difficulties in implementing this project; it’s almost complete already.

Of course, if Putin does decide to amend the Constitution, the West will make a fuss. In broader terms, however, why should we care if it does? Given our oil and gas reserves, and the West’s energy requirements, we’re not dependent on the West; it’s the West that’s dependent on us. Even expelling us from the G8 would be difficult. And do we really need the G8, anyway?

But now, all of a sudden, something strange is happening. The edifice of Russia’s new statehood is almost complete. It’s been constructed entirely according to the orders of Russia’s presidents. Very little effort remains to be made. But all of a sudden, at the last moment, the Kremlin doesn’t want to make that effort. What’s more, it’s starting to do something strange – something that even threatens the stability of the edifice.

Putin declares that he doesn’t intend to amend the Constitution, and will step down in 2008. He says it once. He says it twice. In general terms, such statements are completely normal. Keeping up appearances. He’s supposed to pause, waiting to be asked again and again, before finally consenting. Initially, that’s what everyone thought he was doing (and some continue to think so). But time is passing – the pause is lasting too long, and there’s a growing impression that his decision to step down is serious. Why? No one can come up with a good explanation.

It had already been said that United Russia would rule for the next 30 years. Then, all of a sudden, the president himself gives a new command – and the same people who were just talking of 30 years in power for United Russia start frantic efforts to create something like a second party, out of thin air. Of course, no real second party can be created in this way – but within the managed democracy framework the authorities can create a second party, or even ten parties if they want. There were almost ten such parties in East Germany. Uzbekistan has four at present, each more loyal than the next to President Karimov. But now, with Putin preparing to step down, there’s a period of nervous tension ahead.

Very soon, everyone will start thinking intensely about what his successor will be like; should the successor be regarded as the “real” master, or will Putin remain the real master anyway, with his successor only lasting four years? What should be done with the portraits of Putin in the offices of all state officials and bureaucrats? Get rid of them? Leave them displayed alongside portraits of the new president? Should the new president’s portrait be larger than Putin’s, or should they be the same size? The president’s decision to step down and appoint a successor will inevitably generate dangerous upheaval in many minds. Why add confusion to an already-nervous time by failing to make it clear which party people should vote for and which party’s victory should be ensured?

The third symptom of this odd indecision is the least significant, but it also fits in with the overall picture. Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, coined the term “sovereign democracy” – very similar to communist-era terms like “people’s democracy” or “socialist democracy.” An empty phrase, of course, but perfectly suited to the present-day situation (we don’t have to do as the West tells us, we’re a sovereign democracy, we can give our president ten consecutive terms if we want). And all of a sudden, the Kremlin – speaking through First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev – publicly rejects this term, declaring that the principles of democracy are universal.

What does all this mean?

In my view, the explanation may be as follows.

Yeltsin and Putin set about building the new Russian state without giving much thought to the overall plan and image of the edifice they constructed. It’s been created piecemeal, as the need arose. But now it is almost complete. It has a clear form, a clear outline, a clear image. They can no longer be overlooked – and neither can the fact that this edifice bears no resemblance to democracy as proclaimed in 1991. On the contrary, it greatly resembles the Soviet state. As Viktor Chernomyrdin once said: “In our country, no matter what kind of party you try to create, it always ends up as a CPSU.”

All that’s needed now is a final effort – to take the last steps. But these steps can no longer be unaware. Now that you can see where you have ended up, you have a choice: you can either admit that you haven’t ended up where you wanted to go (psychologically almost impossible), or admit that this was indeed your goal – that we’ve ended up with some sort of intrinsically Russian political forms, fundamentally different from those of the West. (In reality, of course, they’re just as much Russian as they are Uzbek, Kazakh, or Egyptian.) But this requires some sort of ideological foundation. It needs some sort of new words and new concepts. Where are they to come from? It’s no coincidence, of course, that Putin is so interested in the ideas of Ivan Ilyin – who predicted some decades ago that after communism was overthrown, Russia would need “a Christian dictator.”

The final steps require a decision. But deciding to take them is frightening. This isn’t fear of the West, of the people, or of the opposition. It’s fear of the need to consider the path that has been taken – the circular path; the need to evaluate what has been built. The impression is that President Putin has frozen before these final steps, unable to decide to take them. And the people are waiting to see what his decision will be – since the people haven’t decided anything for a long time. But the clock is ticking, and time is passing. The decision will have to be made within the next year.