Stephen D. Shenfield

Distributed January 2000
Copyright ©2000 by Stephen D. Shenfield
Op-Ed Editor: Tracie Sweeney
About 720 Words

Reading between the lines to understand Putin

The new acting president’s writings offer a few hints to the type of policies he may try to pursue.

By Stephen D. Shenfield

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – In some ways, the elevation of Vladimir Putin to the post of acting president to replace Russian President Boris Yeltsin brings back the memory of good old Soviet times.

A new leader comes to power, and nobody knows anything about him beyond a few bare facts from his biography. In this situation, perhaps we might do worse than to go back to reading between the lines.

All we have to read so far is an essay entitled “Russia at the Turn of the Millennium” that appeared on the Russian government Web site under Putin’s name. Probably it was written not by Putin but by a team of advisers under Putin’s guidance.

Traditionally, Soviet leaders discredit their predecessors in no uncertain terms. Khrushchev attacked Stalin for his “cult of personality.” Gorbachev attacked Brezhnev for his “stagnation.” The first speech of a new leader contained hints of the dramatic change to come.

And so it is with Putin’s demarche. The essay contains several clear hints that “de-Yeltsinization” is on the way. Among his key points:

  • He blames the sorry state of the Russian economy mainly on the Soviet legacy, but admits that “we could have avoided certain problems” that resulted from “our mistakes, miscalculations, and lack of experience.”

  • “The experience of the 1990s” shows that Russia cannot be renewed at acceptable cost by “experimenting with abstract models and schemes taken from foreign textbooks. Only in the past year or two have we started groping for our own road and model of transformation,” he writes. This theme of finding a national aim is repeated in several places.

  • Changes and measures entailing a fall in the living conditions of the people are inadmissible in Russia. We have reached a point beyond which we must not go” – implying that Yeltsin’s policies have brought Russia to this critical point.

The thrust of the economic program is the “necessity of deeper state involvement in social and economic processes.” Foreign investment is to be attracted, but there is also to be state guidance of investment policy. An energetic industrial policy is to be pursued, with priority given to high-technology export-oriented enterprises. Natural monopolies are to be subject to rational regulation.

State finances are to be put in order. At the same time, a new policy is promised to raise the incomes of the people and to restore the social safety net. Left unanswered is the question of whether more effective tax collection suffice will reconcile to reconcile these two goals? The problem of Russia’s foreign debt is avoided altogether.

The economic plan bears a striking resemblance to the programs of the Primakov government of late 1998 and early 1999 and the opposition in general. But certain planks are conspicuous by their absence.

Russian exporters are to receive state support – but no mention is made of protecting Russia’s domestic market against foreign imports. The goal of joining the World Trade Organization is reaffirmed.

The authors attempt a compromise between the “liberal” and the “statist” approaches. They try to advance Russian national interests but accept certain limits in order not to alienate the West.

Emphasis is put on Russia’s urgent need for large-scale investment in productive capital, but there’s no explanation for why capital investment was so neglected during the 1990s. There is no mention of the enormous problem of capital flight. It would be difficult to deal more directly with these issues without attacking Russia’s financial oligarchies and Putin does not yet feel strong enough to take them on. He promises a “leaner struggle against corruption” but how serious is he?

No mention is made of Chechnya, nor of any need for military rearmament. The authors state that the real strength of a country in the modern world depends on the technological level of its economy, not on its military might. This suggests that Putin’s current pandering to the generals’ demands for new armaments may be a tactical maneuver, and not part of his long-term strategy.

The overall direction of the change that Putin seeks to bring to Russia is clear. What is not clear is how far and how fast Putin is willing to go. According to the essay, change is to be gradual: there are to be no more sharp breaks.

Stephen D. Shenfield is an assistant professor at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, where he specializes in Russian and post-Soviet politics.