Russia's next president

  • 2000-03-30
  • By Gwynne Dyer
The bad news about Vladimir Putin is that he admires Henry Kissinger. Recalling a conversation he had with America's leading advocate of a foreign policy based solely on amoral 'strategic' considerations, Putin relates how Kissinger said he couldn't understand why Gorbachev had dissolved the Warsaw Pact and withdrawn Soviet forces from Eastern Europe. "Kissinger was right," Putin adds, "we would have avoided lots of problems if we hadn't retreated so rashly."

But does he really believe that? Does he, indeed, believe in anything very much? The man with the classic Russian face, a mirror in which desperate Russians can see whatever they want to, has come to power without ever having had to state his beliefs, outline his policies, or show his hand. Like many of the things Putin says, his remarks about Kissinger have the feel of a pure sound-bite, carefully tailored to appeal to the anxieties and prejudices of the Russian electorate but not rooted in any deeper framework of analysis.

Putin has not become president as a result of waging a long campaign for the job; he was plucked from a crowd of dozens of similar senior administrators and policy wonks by the men around Yeltsin because he seemed pliable, pragmatic, and saleable to public opinion. He did have to sell his soul, of course, in terms of promising to protect the Yeltsin 'family' from prosecution for corruption, but that is actually a promise he could break after he is confirmed in power by popular vote.

Getting Russians first to recognize his name, and then to vote for him, was an equally uncomplicated task. He simply declared war on the Chechens, a people the Russians love to hate, and floated into the presidency on a rising tide of public admiration for his patriotic machismo.

But all that is water under the bridge, as Kissinger might put it - and we may expect Putin to wind the war in Chechnya down rapidly now, for it offers him no further public-relations benefits and is essentially unwinnable. Once safely in office for a four-year term (which he is already talking of extending to seven), what may we expect him to do?

Our only clue is what he has done in his one real job, after the meaningless shadow-play of late Soviet era spy-mongery: deputy mayor of St. Petersburg under the democratic reformer Anatoly Sobchak in the early 90s. Sobchak was corrupt, but none of the slime came off on Putin - and the system of municipal government they forged still serves the city well today.

From a city of 5 million to a country of 150 million is a long jump, but not an impossible one. Moreover, Putin comes to power at a time when Russia's economy is in better shape than it has been for years: tax collection is up, government deficit spending is down, the rouble has stabilized, and GNP is forecast to grow at 4 percent this year.

It doesn't require a genius to put Russia on the road to economic recovery, just somebody a bit more serious and consistent than the erratic drunk who has run the place ever since the Soviet Union collapsed. Putin is no genius, but he is almost certainly serious and consistent enough to do much better than Yeltsin.

It will probably still be a very long time before Russia is a prosperous place, and it is simply not clear whether Putin will do more damage to the fragile democratic institutions of the country than the clowns and crooks who have preceded him in power. It is not clear either whether he will do anything to bring them to justice, though the odds are heavily against it.

And what will he do abroad? In the first few years, at least, he will talk big and act small, for he does clearly understand how weak Russia has become. Like any good KGB man, he has learned not to be ruled by sentiment: "You would have to be heartless not to regret the disintegration of the Soviet Union. You'd have to be brainless to want to restore it.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.