What Does Vladimir Putin Want?

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Stumping: Putin on the campaign trail

Russia's voters appear to have more realistic expectations of the post-communist era than many American commentators. While op-ed pages in the U.S. sound dire warnings about President Vladimir Putin plunging the country back into the dark days of Stalinism, Putin looks set to win upward of 80 percent of the vote in Sunday's presidential election. One voter who plans to give the president her vote told the New York Times why: "At least he isn't making things worse."

The Soul of a New Machine Politician

President Bush, after his first meeting with Putin three years ago, claimed to have looked into the eyes of his Russian counterpart and "gotten a sense of his soul," deciding that Putin was a man he could trust. But for many other Western commentators from all ends of the ideological spectrum, Putin is more akin to a risen ghost from Russia's nasty past. His government's relentless campaign to squelch political opposition and silence independent media; its hounding of the "oligarch" business tycoons whose control over vast swathes of the economy create a potential alternative power center; and the clumsy brutality of his campaign against Chechen separatism fuel concerns that post-communist Russia is being turned, once again, into a fiefdom worthy of the Czars and the Commissars. And the fact that Putin has eschewed the roll-over-and-beg geopolitics of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, in favor of a vigorous nationalist foreign policy that frequently puts Moscow at odds with Washington compounds those concerns.

Russia has built the nuclear energy infrastructure that has allowed Iran to pursue its strategic ambitions, and it may have helped arm Saddam Hussein long after UN sanctions forbade it. Putin recently instructed his defense industry to pursue technologies that would allow Russian missiles to confound the Bush administration's planned missile-defense shield, thereby maintaining the deterrent capability of Moscow's own strategic arsenal. The arrest late last year of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, owner of the massive Yukos oil company, was interpreted by some as a sign that the former KGB colonel-turned-President even planned to reassert state control over the economy.

But as the unenthusiastic comments of so many Putin voters show, there may be an epic gap between the expectations of Western commentators and of ordinary Russians. In an analysis in Foreign Affairs, Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Shleifer argue many of these Western critics have simply projected unreasonable expectations of Russia's post-communist era. They maintain that contemporary Russia's mix of authoritarianism and democracy, its nationalist disposition and even its levels of corruption and criminality put in very much on a par with states of equivalent economic status. Russia's strategic nuclear missile fleet may have once made it a geopolitical competitor to the U.S. but by economic measure, its peers would be the likes of Mexico and Argentina. Its UN Security Council veto power may have given it equal importance to Germany and France in the European camp opposing the war in Iraq, but it remains an economic minnow by European standards — if Russia's GDP per capita doubles in the next decade, it would equal today's figure for Portugal.

He's Their Man

Putin's combination of authoritarian political instincts and market-friendly economic policies make him a political creature quite familiar in countries at Russia's level on the economic ladder — the authoritarian modernizer. Combined with his clampdown on political and media freedom and his ruthless war in Chechnya, Putin has delivered a solid economic performance that has seen investors turning bullish on a Russian economy that grew by 7.3 percent last year. Buoyed by high oil and natural gas prices, Russia's economy looks positively rosy right now compared to Yeltsin's final years. And Putin's brusque, businesslike and sometimes competitive dealings with the U.S. on geopolitical questions has earned him plaudits at home from an electorate embarrassed by his predecessor's doltish antics. He has revived the collection of tax revenues and has vowed to begin modernizing the bureaucracy and the military. But for Russian voters — who aren't, of course, being presented with any serious alternatives — the most attractive thing about Putin may be the promise of stability.

Times remain tough for ordinary Russians: Some 20 million continue to live below the poverty line; corruption remains rife; soldiers continue to die in Chechnya and civilians, too, in the terrorism it has spawned; and a rampant AIDS crisis has left more than 1 million Russians infected with HIV and more joining them every day. But life has become more predictable since the economic catastrophes of the Yeltsin years, and a growing economy is slowly bringing some improvement. The government's elimination of most independent media voices has allowed it to package reality in the most Putin-friendly way. And actions such as the arrest of Khodorkovsky were actually welcomed by much of Putin's electorate, for whom the oligarchs are seen as opportunists who took advantage of Yeltsin's political weakness to loot the national patrimony.

Putin certainly brings with him the baggage of the epic paranoia of the KGB, but the arrest of Khodorkovsky reveals a more complex agenda. Khodorkovsky was certainly bankrolling opposition political activity, which must have been an irritation to Putin — but not necessarily much more than that, as his ability to simply barge the opposition off the political playing field has shown. Far more worrying to Putin, however, were the oil tycoon's plans to build Russia's first oil pipeline independent of state control, and his efforts to sell a major share of his company to Exxon Mobil. States in which oil-production is a major source of export earnings tend to treat is a strategic industry, and Khodorkovsky's desire to make Yukos independent of Moscow's influence was intolerable to Putin and those around him.

Maintaining Control

The Russian president is essentially a nationalist, who believes a strong (read authoritarian) state is necessary to the country's survival and prosperity. There are no indications that he plans to revive the disastrous central planning of the Soviet-era economy; he remains a strong advocate of market economics. Indeed, the stellar performance over the past decade of the oligarch-owned corporations in the energy sector will be the strongest deterrent to restoring any sort of public ownership — Putin and his minions know better than to kill the goose laying the golden egg. After all, the KGB had been first among the Soviet Union's institutions to recognize the decrepitude of its planned economy; it was in the spy apparatus that the Soviet reform process originated.

Dealing with Putin's Russia is now a dilemma that confronts the West for at least the next four years, and more if he decides to take up his legislature's offer to extend his term limit. If Yeltsin's Russia had been an economic basket case run by a pliant buffoon, Putin's is a major and growing oil producer run by an authoritarian nationalist willing to deal with the West but on an independent and often competitive basis. Its domestic politics are likely to offend the eye for some time to come, but so does the domestic politics of China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and scores of other regimes with which the U.S. maintains important relationships. Like the Russian electorate, Western governments simply have no alternative.