24 February 2020

Putin – a pragmatist into overtime?

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Kremlin’s power halls were always unpredictable, even when the Russian and Soviet leadership was already ossified around a leader who seemed to be „посланник Бога” /“God’s envoy”, a situation available even in its atheistic scenario. But the unknown, dark aura is more like a foreign creation, the fight for power and, then, its cultivation, following the same coordinates as anywhere else, however the difference being that in Moscow they do not apply all the disavowal elements from the West, or other parts, and when it is shadowed, the power gets tied to the one that has steel ropes. And there is also another difference, even if the Russian society has, as any other society, political and social activism segments, it has a more concentrated potential than on other meridians, a conservationism that allows it to accept imposed solutions and not elected ones. These are the circumstance surrounding the current president Putin and maybe the future president Putin. Or whatever the future position will be called...

Image source: Mediafax

Is president Putin a black and white character?

The answers to that question should follow West’s general/majoritarian perception, a dark symbol of the Russian autocracy, whether following the patriotic symbolist that he generated in Russia, and more, or through the leader and defender of Russia’s image. Most likely, the reality is somewhere in the middle: Russia’s president is not evil’s uppermost source from Russia to the West, but he is not actually the angelic politician, who uses only what’s allowed, honest and accepted to promote Kremlin’s interests. The nation forgives him if it is protected.

Of course, in the West, especially lately, the Russian president is connected to most of the events that caused divisions in the political life of some states – Brexit, in Great Britain, the 2016 US presidential elections, the hybrid war, to territories’ annexation, here and there, to frozen conflicts, to armed interventions for “friends”. But this does not happen just because “Kremlin’s long hand” got involved in these events (it exists, but it is often groping as the Western and world’s realities are far more complex to be manipulated by some SVR or GRU experts), but also because some “incidents” of the democratic processes can be better presented to the public opinions if presented as influenced by people in Spasski Tower’s shadow.

Most likely, analysts are closer to the truth, as they think Putin’s power ascension is a consequences of how the West has wrongly treated Russia in the first years after Soviet Union’s collapse, during president Boris Eltan’s presidency, when, they said, the West lost Russia.

The black and white characterization, associates the negative aspects not just with the president, but also with the country, which creates both a fake image on Russian realities and allows Kremlin to use this unilateral western vision to send an internal message that the “foreigners” do not want but Russia’s destruction.

Would a more “concentrated” debate change our vision on Russia and its president?

Putin is a creation of Russia's transition period. Just like the country, Vladimir Putin is dependent on decades of communism but also the need for reform to keep the country on the main stage, in a changing world. Like the tens of millions of Russians of the 1990s, Putin awoke, overnight, from a citizen of one of world’s two superpowers, to a single member in a new state that could no longer protect not only its external borders, but not even their own industry, their own resources.

On a smaller scale, of course, it is the same feeling felt by Brits when they gave up, nationally, the inheritance of the British Empire to join the European Union. The frustrations were great and, in the end, they spilled over into Brexit.

Therefore, Russia’s response and the transitional leaders’ generation, with Putin as the main representative, was an emotional one. And because the West has created bridges with Russia especially in one direction, to send its values ​​and to physically approach its borders, this response came as a combat reaction.

And the result was a potential communication error between the parties. If Russia saw the West s an aggressive offensive to its values, to the national territory, the West began to personalize Russia as a place alike Putin, dominated by a KGB past and eager to get power and money. To what extent such a characterization can be made to the Russian leader may be difficult to answer and, anyway, the political clichés and the media, the accompanying perceptions will not be able to be changed. Nor are they very relevant to the morality and efficiency of decisions as a national leader: Stalin died alone and poor, according to common criteria.

A story from Putin's early biography tells us that, as a high school student, he went straight to the KGB headquarters in St. Petersburg/Leningrad, interested in how he could be part of this organization, and the service officer pushed him to start law studies. It is difficult to say if things really worked that way, the recruitment probably took place later, but the fact that it is inserted as an early initiation moment of the unofficial biography, shows a commitment. Which was not necessarily ideological, because the KGB was not just dealing with anti-communists. Rather, the decision was made given that he would be part of an elite, privileged institution of that time.

How about the qualities he showed during those years? We can hardly tell. It was not assigned to one of organization’s elite structures (Direction 1, External Espionage), only later, due to the German language knowledge, learned before recruitment, it reached an external official mission, but in a position with no resonances and special challenges (socialist country with Soviet troops on the territory).  

And his KGB career ended pretty quickly, officially speaking, in 1991, by resignation, a novelty in those years, in general, and the KGB in particular, to become a politician. That's how he writes in the biography, so we write accordingly.

Regardless of how things went, it is quite obvious that the personal connection with intelligence people is very strong and that his politician vision about Russia and the world is built on a platform that has most of elements in the service area. And there are notable differences, not only in Russia, between the way diplomats perceive country realities and the one wherein the members of the external intelligence services see the same realities. Internally, the differences are even more obvious. Politicians negotiate this reality according to interests, those in the information structures, although they are generally more neutral than the former, but tend to exaggerate the threats, following prevention.

As for the allegations about the kleptocratic tendencies on the Russian political elite and its leader, here, perhaps, we need to separate the three layers of Russian society, which continues Soviet Union’s ones:

1. Normal, common Russia, of those who work for and live on salary. Like everywhere else, in a normal country. Most likely, with a more visible gray area, of bribery and corruption, which will „adjust” to a society still not released by the old masters. During USSR, it was the civil servants class, of educated people, but just that;

2. Corrupted Russia, of those who took advantage of the transition period, who understood and used the opportunities offered by anarchy years, but also by the subsequent stabilization. During the years the USSR was bureaucrats’ class with studies, but also with higher positions in the state and party;

3. Ideological Russia, of those for whom money is no longer such a determinant, they were either accumulated in a previous period, or come automatically, but in this phase, it is important the power itself, vision’s imposition on the present and future of Russia, historical legitimacy, historical memory. Before 1991, it was the circle of those in the CC of PSS, the Presidium of Supreme Soviet, related areas.

Putin is probably part of this elitist, broadly ideological layer, which he considers to have a vision and a mission for Russia. His ideology and the group that is leading the destinies of Russia today is a nationalism that is partly adapted to the realities of today's world, but which continues to advocate for a special role for the country, like a unique destiny: Russia deserves a special role because it is Russia. It does not matter the GDP level, the old ideology, it is not even about religion, it only matters мать Россия/mother Russia. All the others: economic development, historical past, religious membership are not but justifying this statement.

In this regard, Putin becomes a pragmatist who uses any means to get the myth of unrivalled country. History justifies the present decisions, religion adds divine connotations, law (president's primary discipline) legally rationalizes the claim space, while philosophy (anthropological and study of civilizations, Dughin genus) creates superior explanations for concrete decisions (annexation of Crimea or Novorossia’s myth, for example).

The Russian president uses these areas on the toolbox/presidential toolkit, depending on current challenge. The Russian president also uses the people who can make various projects possible. If problems emerge, as is the case with Donbass, and another approach is needed, and their presence in the foreground becomes unwanted, the president can get rid of them. This was the case of Alexandr Dughin, useful as long as the Novorossia myth seemed achievable, later excluded, including from the University, when his ideas became utopian; it was also the case of Igor Strelkov, one of independence’s promoters of Crimea and Donbass as steps for unification with Russia, dismissed in 2014 and placed in the second plan of Russia's actions in eastern Ukraine. It also seems to be the case of Vladimir Surkov, who was recently replaced as a Russian negotiator for Ukraine, with Dimitri Kozak, the reintegration official of former Soviet states.

A system that works for president’s peace

Decisions made in critical moments puts the president in a rather pragmatic and an opportunist light, as he seems he is using situations just to react faster than other international leaders. Of course, in the West, analyses are tempted to make exaggerated appraisals about the strategic capabilities of the Russian leader, the multidimensional management of the international situation. Russia's international problems, as well as its relative economic stagnation, do not demonstrate a complex strategy, however, not one that fundamentally changes things for the better for Russia.

In fact, Russia does not work following a centralization and mathematical order system; it is too big for it, too big the differences between the regions. Some analysts call this state "liberal autocracy", with a small "l". It is a definition that has been relatively correct even in the Czarist period and is still partially present. It is a sort of dictatorship that allows initiatives and a market economy, only if they do not interfere with Center’s interests.

Also in this context, criticism and public demonstrations can exist. If they target a local issue, a bad governor, a regional corruption, there is no problem. If they do not keep their place and try more, someone has to intervene. Protestants must also follow an unwritten rule: as long as they address apolitical issues, environmental issues, corruption, administrative decisions, protest is allowed. If it goes political, it becomes problematic. If it targets the Center, it becomes dangerous.

Putin has, as I said, a vision of Russia and its place in the world, but the details, the implementation way, especially internally, rest with the structures, the local leaders, the organizations, all those who have responsibilities in different fields. They are doing the same thing as 30, or 40, or 50 years ago, trying to identify what would be the course of action that would please the president.

And sometimes it is satisfied, people are promoted, sometimes not, and the door of promotion is closed for those who have had the wrong solution.

The regime he leads, regardless of how black it is presented in the international media, is not one that eliminates his enemies; it is enough to make them irrelevant, to marginalize them. After a while, to even use them. We cannot say the same about traitors. They must disappear. Litvinenko and Skripal’s cases are relevant to that end. Their desertion was felt as a betrayal even more as it happened within the services, wherefore the president has a special approach. It was worsened by the continuation, and after reaching the new residence country, of the anti-Kremlin and anti-Putin actions, which were interpreted as breaking the unwritten agreement that if you were the subject of an exchange/case Skripal, withdrawal/silence is the only option. In these cases, the proposal may have come from somewhere ground level, waiting for the perfect ocassion for the president to write a justifying "Yes" on the report.

 And there comes a moment when...

... Biologically or constitutionally, things can no longer continue as before. President Putin's proposals for constitutional changes, made long enough before they are truly implemented, aim at identifying the best solution for regime preservation. The various components of the elite, which sometimes provide different approaches to Putin's table, are seeking an internal reform that will preserve the essence, the visionary - ideological, nationalist, and adjust what is needed in leaders’ selection.

The foreseen reform also has the role keeping apparatus and state bodies’ unity. Only in this way can the control over a possible critical reaction in the society be maintained.

Therefore, leader’s role is essential. The president's constitutional proposals are not immutable, they are just attempts for the best way forward, for Russia and for himself. Due to the prematurely debated discussion about what will happen after 2024, Putin has decided to show that things are under control. The debate should be under control and possibly kept to a reasonable level. Because an entire system is aligned power and needs continuity confirmation.

Currently, about the purpose of the constitutional debate, we can make only a few general statements:

● the system will remain strongly presidential, with a series of adjustments and transfers of responsibilities to the prime minister;

● the period up to 2024 is not about the constitutional discussion, but about the identification of a successor;

● if there is no satisfactory answer for a Putin-bis, things get complicated and, eventually, the denomination is postponed;

● it could follow a period like the 2008 - 2012 scenario, with a weaker president, closely watched by Putin, in a new, still unclear quality;

● The referendum on constitutional changes will take place before (in fact, a long time before, if the deployment period is maintained, in April 2020) for the project itself to be finalized, so that, until the last moment, Putin will have the possibility to choose the most feasible option for the situation. Voters will vote to strengthen the State Council institution, and its president's responsibilities will be clearly specified.

Because at its leadership, it is expected to be chosen ... you guessed it!

Translated by Andreea Soare