The Corner

Putin, Again

David Satter is the author of It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past, which is just out from Yale University Press, and Age of Delirium, a documentary film based on his book of the same name.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Can any good come of another Putin term?

David Satter: Good things may occur during Putin’s new term but they will mostly involve the removal of Putin. He has now been in power for 12 years (the four years of the Medvedev presidency were a charade). He is planning to remain in office for at least 12 more. That’s too long for any ruler, let alone one who presides over the kind of lawlessness that characterizes Russia today. The country needs economic and political reform, but it will never get them as long as Putin is in power because modernization and democratization would automatically limit the ability of Putin and his friends to rule in the interests of their clique.

Lopez: What is the greatest danger the Russian people face? Is President Putin likely to make it better or worse?

Satter: The greatest danger facing the Russian people is that the Putin regime will be replaced by a regime dominated by ultra-nationalists professing a debased form of Russian Orthodoxy. Such a regime could easily extinguish the freedoms that still exist in Russia and embark on a course of direct confrontation with the West. By remaining in power, Putin makes this possibility more likely. His corruption and misrule are already leading to violence and that can only lead to the radicalization of the opposition.

Lopez: Did any of the Gorbachev/Yeltsin reforms stick? Will they?

Satter: Gorbachev gave Russia freedom of speech. Yeltsin gave it a capitalist economy. But neither gave it what it needed most — the rule of law. The individual in Russia counted for nothing under Communism. He counted for nothing during Yeltsin’s “reforms.” And he counts for nothing under Putin, who nonetheless presided over a sharp rise in the country’s standard of living. There is freedom of speech in Russia under Putin, even though television and most newspapers are censored. There is capitalism although it is massively corrupt. But these limited gains have not helped Russia to achieve a society in which the individual’s rights and personal dignity are respected and where disagreements are settled without the automatic resort to force.

#more#Lopez: What worries you most about Russia?

Satter: Russia is a country in which the obligatory balance between the rights of the individual and the prerogatives of the state has been overturned in favor of the latter. On September 1, 2004, terrorists seized School Number 1 in Beslan. They rounded up hundreds of parents and children who had arrived for the first day of school and herded them into the school’s gymnasium. The hostages were held for 52 hours. Russian forces then opened fire on the gymnasium with grenade launchers and flame throwers an hour after agreement had reached to try to negotiate an end to the crisis. 332 hostages were killed, including 186 children, most of them burned alive.

There is not a single civilized country that would have refused negotiations and carried out an indiscriminate slaughter under those conditions. There is only one person who could have given the order for that attack. He is still in power in Russia. If there is a crisis in Russia, he may again have to make decisions connected to respect for human life. I think the implications are obvious.

Lopez: The New York Times reported: “Outside the Kremlin walls, Mr. Putin announced his return in another way. The police swept boulevards and squares, detaining anyone they saw wearing white ribbons, the symbol adopted by anti-Putin activists.” What is the life of a dissenter in a Putin regime? Is that overly dramatic language to be using? 

Satter: Ironically, the full weight of Russian lawlessness does not fall on political dissenters whose principal persecution consists of not being allowed on state television. The Putin era has witnessed many crimes but the general attitude toward the political opposition has been surprisingly liberal. The attitude seems to be that as long as they are powerless they can say what they want. In part, this reflects a great cynicism. The tolerated opposition weekly, Novaya Gazeta, has three articles in every issue that would bring down the government in any normal country. But the authorities don’t seem to react. They don’t act on the information but they don’t go after the author, except in cases like that of Anna Politkovskaya where the criticism has crossed some invisible line.

As for the report in the New York Times, it is a little overwrought. But it is important that the government is now using increasingly brutal methods against peaceful demonstrators. Inherent in this is the possibility that both sides will escalate.

Lopez: Putin was given a black suitcase with nuclear codes upon returning to the presidency. Isn’t that totally 80s? 

Satter: It is, of course, anachronistic for Putin to make a show of accepting the nuclear suitcase. But Russia’s nuclear arsenal is its only claim to great power status and a point of national pride. Russians are ready to forgive a lot in a ruler who appears to defend Russia’s power and greatness and, in Putin, they have a lot to forgive.

Lopez: How dire are Russia’s demographics? What can be done here?

Satter: The demographic situation is truly tragic. Russia’s failure to value the individual is reflected in a general lack of respect for the sanctity of human life, including one’s own life. There were signs recently that the birth rate was increasing and Russia’s death rate was declining, but the long-term prognoses are not good. Only fundamental psychological change can turn Russia into a nation that wants to survive.

Lopez: What was the flexibility President Obama told Medvedev he’d have after the election?

Satter: It is anyone’s guess what Obama has in mind for U.S.-Russian relations if he is reelected, but whatever it is, he may be in for a nasty surprise. Russia’s behavior will have nothing to do with the U.S. and everything to do with the need to shore up Putin’s position at home. Unfortunately, the best way to do that is to be seen to be standing up to the West.

Lopez: How should Mitt Romney be thinking and talking about Russia? Can he make a difference in the lives of Russians? Can an American president do something like that?

Satter: Romney should be thinking about Russia but he should use extreme caution in what he says. If the internal situation in Russia worsens, as I think it will, it will be important for the U.S. to exert moral influence which means articulating basic principles and expressing solidarity with the Russian people, while avoiding both expressions of good will for the regime and loose talk that plays to an American audience but backfires with Russians. An American president can make a difference. Reagan did. But he needs to be resistant to illusions, grounded in history, and ready to seek out the common ground that at a fundamental level unites Americans and Russians and to which, despite everything, Russians will respond.


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