Eight years of Putin: better then eight years of Bush

Alexander Rahr, an analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations, discusses the West’s attitude to Russia, Vladimir Putin’s rise to power and achievements in office, the outlook for Putin’s successor, and Putin’s future after 2008.

Question: You have said that thanks to Putin, Russia is becoming an energy superpower. But the West is doing all it can to obstruct this. The impression is that the West fears a successful Russia.

Alexander Rahr: Russia has always gone to extremes in everything. First introducing Marxism in such a radical form that in time it became a communist dictatorship. Then capitalism, even more brutal than American capitalism in the 19th Century. And now, as soon as Russia gets a pleasant taste of gas and oil export revenues, it’s immediately decided that these resources can be used to gain control over the whole world. Meanwhile, the West regarded Russia as nothing more than a raw materials appendage, or a junior partner at best. But Russia has suddenly started flexing its energy muscles for all to see, talking the language of ultimatums, even making threats. Russian capitalists have suddenly rushed to buy up some of Europe’s leading strategic assets. Hence the fear and the envy of rich Russians who were begging for handouts only a few years ago, but now have their own private jets, luxury yachts, and villas on the Cote d’Azure. Russia is moving into Western markets on a grand scale, and it thinks it has already won. But it’s behaving like a bear.

Question: So much for the capitalists. But what does Europe think of our leaders – especially Vladimir Putin?

Alexander Rahr: The media sometimes take a negative view. When a politician with a background like Putin’s is running such a potentially powerful country as Russia, and acting from a position of strength with regard to domestic politics or neighboring countries, the West shudders in fear. Although the intellectual elite has great respect for Putin, precisely because of his strength of character.

Question: Your book about Putin came out in 2001. It’s been five years since then – a whole era. How would you describe this period, in terms of Putin’s rule?

Alexander Rahr: Putin set himself a number of tasks. Some have been achieved, others have not. But if we compare the Putin era with eight years of the Bush Administration in the United States, the comparison largely favors Putin. He has maximized social stability, strengthened the economy, created a good foundation of legislation for his successor, and established relations with some countries Russia couldn’t talk to in the past. On the negative side, in my view, Putin has given too much license to the re-Sovietized part of the Russian bureaucracy. Due to this, there’s an air of “Soviet nostalgia” in many government offices.

Question: The methods Putin has used to stabilize society are described in the West as “undemocratic.”

Alexander Rahr: As well as the economy, government in Russia was also “privatized” in the 1990s. Politics became a field for maneuvers by financial-industrial group clans, whose primary concern was for their own interests, not national interests. Putin encountered some powerful resistance when he first took office. But his methods in this power-struggle were relatively mild: this isn’t the Stalin era. Considering that the people regard the 1990s as just about the most horrific period in Russian history, Putin was bound to adopt a policy of mild authoritarianism or managed democracy.

Question: Few had even heard of Putin in 1999 – but as soon as he was brought out into the political arena, this unknown, unremarkable person became incredibly popular, and his popularity is still high. What is the secret of the Putin phenomenon?

Alexander Rahr: I don’t think it’s really about Putin himself – it’s more of a “man in uniform” phenomenon, something Russian society had been craving ever since the mid-1990s. Remember how Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s popularity rose when everyone learned of his links to the security and law enforcement agency. Then there was Alexander Lebed, an even more charismatic figure, practically worshipped by the people. Then there was Yevgeny Primakov: he was the one who started fighting the oligarchs, a battle that Putin continued. Even now, one of the popular potential presidential candidates is Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. Once again, we are seeing voter demand for a person associated with the security and law enforcement agencies – someone who can be tough when necessary, and take full responsibility for that, as a military man and a statist.

Question: You have quoted a psychologist who described Putin as a very shy, modest person. Do you think Putin really has a strong personality, or has his toughness been exaggerated by image-makers?

Alexander Rahr: Yes, it was a PR exercise at first. But the time came when Putin was able to make independent decisions. Boris Berezovsky’s mistake was failing to perceive that Putin had some strong inner convictions. He was regarded as a “man in uniform,” but a loyal one, someone who would follow orders. But Putin started showing a will of his own. In 1999, everyone realized that Yeltsin’s popularity was falling, and there was a need for someone different: young, healthy, sober, athletic, able to speak softly but also to take tough action. Putting it in the language of the 18th Century, the Russian people should love their Tsar. But Yeltsin disappointed everyone. Putin, on the other hand, has always been able to guess what most of the people expect of him. Few politicians can do that. It’s impossible to stay in power for eight years by artificial methods only. Putin himself, not his image-makers, deserves credit for that.

Question: After Putin steps down, do you think he could be turned into a scapegoat for everything? That is what usually happens to former leaders.

Alexander Rahr: Yes, this could happen in Russia – especially if something goes wrong with the economy. But looking at the situation now, it’s clear that the Russian people take a calm view of their former leaders: Gorbachev and Yeltsin alike are able to travel freely and live in their own country, even though some people curse them. The same fate may await Putin. But I don’t think he will go. He will step down as president in 2008, but he’ll do all he can to remain in politics. As speaker of the parliament, prime minister, party leader, or in some other role, he could influence the next president. His main objective is to ensure that his successor fits into the controlling mechanism of governance, doesn’t try to change the state of affairs, and submits to Putin’s influence.

Question: About the successor – Putin himself has said that it might be an unknown, a person no one has seen as yet.

Alexander Rahr: Putin often uses sophisticated intelligence-style methods: saying one thing, doing another. Don’t assume that Putin always tells the whole truth. In Russia’s present condition, the unpredictable twists of the 1990s can’t happen. History won’t repeat itself. Putin isn’t likely to pull a new rabbit out of his hat. In 1999, everyone expected someone new – a mystery individual who would appear from somewhere and change everything. These days, nothing needs to be changed, so people will vote for a person who will continue Putin’s policy course. Both Dmitri Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov would do that. These candidates are the right choice. Actually, rumors of an “unknown person” are distraction maneuvers, to give the people the impression that no decision has been made as yet.