The recent sentencing of Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky to nine years imprisonment for tax evasion and fraud has provoked a wave of international condemnation of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Khodorkovsky’s sentence is widely—and correctly—viewed in the context of Putin’s relentless drive to consolidate power within Russia and minimize even potential threats to his rule.
Although it requires little acumen to understand Putin as a threat to democracy, it is a more complex task to identify a credible alternative to his rule.
Pursuing a vendetta against Khodorkovsky for his funding of opposition parties, Putin orchestrated a campaign by tax inspectors, state prosecutors and the servile Russian judicial system to renationalize the core production unit of Yukos, Khodorkovsky’s giant oil company. The campaign complements other recent machinations by Putin, highlighted by the abolition of popular elections for regional governors. Another legal adjustment will boost the fortunes of the Kremlin’s favored Duma candidates by transforming the elections for all Duma seats to a party-list format. Having already reestablished state control over Russia’s TV networks, the Kremlin last week solidified its grip on the media when the state-controlled gas monopoly, Gazprom, bought a controlling stake in Izvestia, one of Russia’s most influential independent newspapers.
Russia’s current political structure is often sarcastically referred to as “managed democracy.” The system is really a combination of aspects of Russia’s two historical forms of government—tsarist autocracy and Communist Party dictatorship. Putin’s rule mixes elements of Russian nationalism and one-party rule that are evident in the discordant symbols of Putin’s Russia—the official flag is the imperial Russian tricolor, while Putin has resurrected the Soviet national anthem (albeit with new lyrics).
As an authoritarian leader whose orders are carried out through a handpicked prime minister and his cabinet, Putin recreates one of the salient features of the imperial autocracy. Like the tsars, Putin insulates himself from criticism by blaming the country’s problems on a self-interested and inefficient bureaucracy that fails to properly implement his decrees. This was Putin’s response in January, when widespread protests erupted as the government put into effect a plan, favored by Putin, to replace pensioners’ social benefits such as free public transport with stingy cash payments. Putin pinned responsibility for the plan on the government, which is responsible directly to him, and on the United Russia party in the Duma, which has no agenda other than supporting Putin’s initiatives.
Putin took a similar tack with the controversial Khodorkovsky prosecution, attaching all responsibility to ostensibly independent tax inspectors and state prosecutors. Putin occasionally chided his operatives for excessive zeal in enforcing his own campaign against the oil magnate, much as he stages regular televised meetings in which he dresses down ministers for problems stemming from their implementation of his agenda. Putin thus taps into a theme with deep roots in Russian history: He is the mythical “Good Tsar” fighting for the Russian people against the self-interested mandarins of officialdom. Even Putin’s capricious changes to the Duma electoral laws have a tsarist precedent from 1907, when Prime Minister Stolypin, facing an oppositionist Duma, arbitrarily changed the electoral law to get an assembly more accommodating to the tsar.
While carrying out this autocratic restoration, Putin has likewise reinvigorated elements of Russia’s Communist past. Utilizing the state’s heavy-handed power to harass the opposition and enjoying the support of the state-controlled media, Putin’s supporters in United Russia gained a constitutional majority in the 2003 Duma elections, transforming the Duma into a rubber stamp for Putin’s policies. (Notably, United Russia was the only party whose candidates refused to participate in television campaign debates, since the party has no real platform aside from supporting Putin.) United Russia has taken on the attributes of a state party reminiscent of the days of Communist Party rule, as regional officials are coming under increasing pressure to join the party to show support for Putin. Its activities are even complemented by the pro-Putin youth groups Moving Together and Nashi (Ours), which provide a faint echo of the Soviet-era Communist youth group, the Komsomol.
Putin’s anti-democratic tendencies are easy to condemn, but observers must also consider who would represent a credible alternative. Although Americans naturally have a soft spot for the pro-Western, pro-market Yabloko and SPS parties, these groups combined command the support of less than 10% of the population. Weakened by leadership squabbles and falling easy victim to nationalist and Communist attempts to link them to Russia’s robber-baron oligarchs, support for the pro-Western parties remains largely confined to Russia’s undersized, urban-dwelling middle class. In the 2003 election, neither Yabloko nor the SPS passed the 5% threshold required for election in the Duma’s party-list races.
This leaves the Communist Party, Rodina (Motherland), and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats as alternatives to Putin. All three parties offer a more extreme version of Putin’s blend of nationalism and Communist nostalgia. The tone of their appeal is much more ideological than Putin’s, even though none of the parties actually has a coherent ideology. Their appeals center on ethnic chauvinism and Communist-inspired economic policies that are often infused with conspiracy theories in which America typically plays a prominent role. Zhirinovsky has been co-opted by the Kremlin and his party reliably supports Putin’s initiatives in the Duma.
Support for the Communists, whose Marxist internationalist bona fides have been diluted by their Russian chauvinist and anti-Semitic entreaties, has hemorrhaged as they have failed to broaden their appeal past the superannuated pensioner class. They have lost many supporters to Rodina, which numerous analysts believe is a Machiavellian creation of the Kremlin designed to weaken the Communists. Rodina does, however, provide a kind of infantile opposition to Putin, most famously when five party leaders went on a publicity drive disguised as a hunger strike to protest monetization of pensioners’ social benefits. Aside from the churlish Communist/nationalist politicos and the discredited liberals, there is also an anti-Putin fringe group called the National-Bolsheviks that mixes a Communist economic agenda with a hardcore Fascist style, replete with Nazi-style armbands and party symbols that incorporate a hammer and sickle into a swastika flag.
Russians are currently in a state of ideological confusion. The chaotic transition away from socialism during the Yeltsin years, with its attendant insider privatization deals and periodic economic meltdowns, has justified to many people the deep suspicion of capitalism ingrained during Russia’s 70-year Communist experiment. Outside of Putin’s camp of “managed democrats,” and to some extent even within it, we find a bizarre mÃ?Æ? Â©lange of right-wing and left-wing extremism, usually fused by the bonds of anti-capitalism and anti-Americanism. This writer witnessed an unsettling manifestation of this ideological syncretism at a Victory Day parade in St. Petersburg that featured a large, officially sanctioned contingent of neo-Nazi skinheads. (The holiday, of course, commemorates the USSR’s victory over Nazi Germany.)
So Putin looks quite agreeable in comparison with the opposition (granted, that’s setting the bar pretty low). At his core, Putin is an authoritarian leader who largely eschews ideological straightjackets in favor of a pragmatic agenda of strengthening his own internal power and increasing Russia’s international influence. He has no ideological predisposition toward anti-Americanism, and he seeks to increase Russia’s global clout partly by strengthening Russia’s free market, albeit with the state’s retaining control of sectors such as energy and media that are deemed crucial to his power base. The prospect of a more liberal alternative to Putin is bleak, as the self-defeating liberal parties are divided and unpopular, while it is doubtful that any of the more liberal ministers could command the support of the military, security services, and the United Russia bureaucracy necessary to establish a stable presidency.
For their part, most of the opposition parties seek even more authoritarian rule than exists under Putin. Thus, despite his campaign against Khodorkovsky and myriad other anti-democratic shenanigans, it’s best to view Putin the way most of the Russian population currently does: For now, he’s the least bad choice for Russian president.