Russia’s Democratic Dictatorship

Russia’s Democratic Dictatorship

Not since Leonid Brezhnev’s death in 1982 has Russia had such a prospect of political stability. Vladimir Putin’s election to the presidency this past spring consummated the first voluntary transfer of power—instead of by death or a coup—in the entire millennial span of Russia’s history. In essence appointed by his faltering predecessor Boris Yeltsin, the forty-seven-year-old Putin seems destined to enjoy a four-year term with the opportunity for another seven years if the Constitution is so amended.

But stability at what price? It is the stability of exhaustion, coming after jarring change and infirm leadership. Even Yeltsin’s dedicated apologists now concede that the man who was supposed to give Russia rule-of-law democracy and free-market prosperity instead turned Russian government into a Byzantine cabal and the economy into a thieves’ paradise. National disgust, as much as the Chechen war, explains why a desperate electorate was willing to embrace Yeltsin’s unknown designee, if only he would serve as an elected czar and bring order to the country.

But why choose Putin, in particular, to get Russia out of its impasse? The circumstances were supremely ironic. He was picked, as far as anyone can divine, by the same people who were most immediately responsible for the mess, the “Family” so-called— Yeltsin’s entourage of relatives, scheming staffers, and financial oligarchs. His mission, as Yeltsin’s mandate and health were running out, was plain: to protect the Family’s ill-gotten billions by putting down, forcibly if necessary, the real reformers and corruption fighters led by former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov. Yet Putin’s backers may get more than they bargained for.

Though he kept a low profile, Putin was not an unknown to those on the inside—certainly no “black box”—when he was tapped for prime minister in August 1999 to end more than a year of revolving door leadership in the Russian government. The big break for this former intelligence operative came in 1990, when his one-time law professor, the late Anatoly Sobchak, became mayor of Leningrad in the democratic local elections that Mikhail Gorbachev had allowed in connection with his reforms of perestroika. Sobchak named Putin his assistant for international matters (particularly to seek out foreign investment), and then deputy mayor. He made a positive impression on visiting businessmen.

After the collapse of the Soviet regime, Leningrad/St. Petersburg became a base for free-market reform, and for corruption as well, both associated with the Leningrad economist Anatoly Chubais, Yeltsin’s privatization pusher, deputy prime minister, chief of staff, and charter member of the Family. When Putin lost the deputy mayor’s job after Sobchak’s electoral defeat in 1996, Chubais brought him to Moscow to serve as deputy business manager in the presidential administration, the fourth branch of government in Russ...


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