Politics & Policy

Viva Putin?

Only a vocal minority wants Putin out of Russia.

David Pryce-Jones finds the Putin government to be an odious regime. The question is, why do millions of Russians appear to disagree with his assessment?

The short answer, popular in the West, is that the masses have been drugged into complacency by a mix of Kremlin dominance of the airwaves and walking-around money provided by high energy profits.

 

This is true — but only up to a point. Russia derives much of its export earnings from selling raw materials abroad, but domestic consumer demand has become the primary driver of economic growth — and growth has averaged nearly seven percent per year since Vladimir Putin took office. Most of the negative trends that beset Russia during the Yeltsin years have been halted. And, quite tellingly, I estimate that some 30 percent of Russians now have a vested stake in the success of what is termed “Kremlin, Inc.” — the network of companies in which the government has a controlling stake or where the owners are in close alignment with the Kremlin.

It is quite telling that when state companies took over the assets of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s YUKOS oil company, the middle managers, engineers, and specialists stayed in place. If we persist in thinking of the current regime as simply a few hundred people in Moscow, we miss the important fact there are hundreds of thousands of employees who benefit from this status quo, not to mention the extended beneficiaries such as teachers and doctors who, because of the growing tax base, are being paid on a regular basis.

 

Survey data indicates that most Russians do want a democratic form of government with all that implies: — freedom of speech and assembly, competitive elections, and so on. But many also do not trust that the opposition, if it were to come to power, would be able to do a better job of securing these rights and, at the same time, there is no confidence that they would be able to keep the economy on an even keel. Many younger Russians that I have spoken with feel that the disasters of the Yeltsin years have so discredited the “familiar faces” of Russian liberalism that it will take a new generation to restore its credibility.

 

Moreover, any association, even a tenuous one, with the oligarchs has profoundly negative implications for many in Russia. In the West, we often see the oligarchs as colorful business figures who broke a few rules. In Russia, they are detested not simply by the old babushky who long for Stalin’s day but by many members of the middle class. Re-read David Hoffman’s The Oligarchs with its depiction of asset-stripping, stock manipulations, unpaid salaries and, most tragically, how millions lost their savings when the banks collapsed in 1998 — and you understand why they are not viewed as heroes of either Russian capitalism or democracy. Boris Berezovsky’s recent statements about wanting to foment revolution in Russia were a godsend to the Putin team because of the profoundly negative reaction they generated in Russia.

 

I recently received a copy of a survey taken by the Center for Citizen Initiatives of a group of one hundred Russian entrepreneurs (from 28 regions of Russia) who visited the United States earlier this year. This is the group we would associate as being the bedrock of support for democratic liberalism. 82 percent indicated they approved of the general direction of the Russian economy today; 90 percent said that the standard of living was improving for average citizens in their regions. A slight majority felt that the shift in how local governors now come to power — no longer by direct election but by nomination from the Kremlin — had made regional leaders much more responsive to their concerns.

 

They have concerns, of course. Only 27 percent agreed that they could get reasonably accurate information from the Russian mainstream media and 50 percent noted that there is less ability to criticize the government in the Russian MSM under Putin. But, as has been noted repeatedly in other surveys as well, the younger, more educated generation simply turns to online sources; the Russian Internet (RUnet) is particularly free-wheeling in terms of its debates about the future of Russia.

 

For me, the most revealing statistic: 72 percent would vote for a continuation of “Putin’s direction” in choosing his successor in 2008. (60 percent would vote for Putin if he could run for a third term).

 

It is clear that many Russians do not like many aspects of the Putin government. Disenchantment with corruption is a major sticking point. But they also don’t see viable alternatives.

 

The question about alternatives is also something we must address here in the West. There is a prevailing attitude, particularly on Capitol Hill, that “anyone but Putin” must be a better choice. And in the “Alternative Russia” (Drugaya Rossiya) coalition, there are some compelling figures whose commitment to Western-style liberal market democracy is beyond question — among them, Putin’s former advisor Andrei Illarionov and former presidential candidate Irina Khakhamada.

But there are also some troubling elements, too. Why U.S. conservatives would want to make common cause with groups like the “National Bolshevik party” — whose emblem combines Nazi and Soviet designs, and which sends its skinheads into battle with the police — or hold up the “Vanguard of Red Youth” as the best representatives of Russian democracy, is difficult to explain.

Grigory Yavlinsky and the Yabloko party, the largest remaining liberal political force in the country, declined to take part in the marches this past weekend “due to fundamental political and ideological differences with the event organizers and our mistrust of them,” according to their press statement. Yavlinsky went on to criticize the overbearing response of the authorities to the marches, but his concerns should raise some red flags here.

 

But in the end, the problem we have troubling facing up to is that the opposition to Putin does not speak for a Russian “silent majority” but is very much a vocal minority. It is difficult to accept that a government that is taking Russia in a different direction than the one we had hoped is doing so with both the passive and active support of a majority of the country’s population. But that’s the reality.

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