Putin, Now and Forever

Irina Filatova, aprofessor of the State University,High School of Economics in Moscow, and professor emeritus and senior research fellow of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, writing in the Guardian’s “Comment is Free” blog:

Back to the USSR” is the way liberal political analysts in Russia and abroad often refer to the legacy of Putin’s presidency. This is not quite right. If the legacy of the last president is “back to” anything, it is to the centuries-long tradition of Russian statehood – in other words, more or less full control by the centre over the regions and over all spheres of the economy and society. The Soviet model was, of course, the ultimate expression of Russian statehood, but this is not what Russia’s second president – or the part of the elite that he represents – has recreated.

One of the most important aspects of Putin’s legacy is the submission of the regions and provinces to Moscow. Putting an end to their disobedience and dissent was a lengthy process, in which the substitution of appointed governors for the elected ones was merely the coup de grace. It was preceded by the appointment of presidential representatives to the provinces and by the introduction of a new structure and composition for the Federation Council – the upper chamber of the Russian parliament and previously a centre of power for the regions.

The taming of business is another and perhaps even more important aspect of Putin’s legacy. There’s nothing Soviet about it, for there was, of course, no room for private business in the nationalised economy. But a tame business sector, dependent on the monarch for its existence and well-being, is very much the tradition of Muscovy. The Stroganovs, Russia’s famous traders and manufacturers, were rich enough to fund the government’s war efforts in the 17th century, but were still dependent on the crown for their business licenses and for permits to trade abroad. Why nationalise, if private businesses, having been beaten into submission (the Khodorkovsky affair was only the best known of a long line of similar sagas), provide the centre with whatever it wants? To be fair, there is simply no other way for business to survive.

A state monopoly over the most lucrative spheres of trade is also a centuries-long tradition. Furs and salt, wax and honey, and then vodka and gold, were long among the main sources of income for tsarist and Soviet treasuries.

The military have always played an important role in the militarised tsarist and Soviet state and economy – so there is no real surprise about the rise of the “siloviki”. And the attempts to subjugate the opposition by whipping up nationalism and xenophobia, provoking an increase in terrorism in response – all run true to form.

Putin’s main legacy, however, is Putin himself. Power in Russia has always been personalised, not institutionalised, and Putin has done everything to strengthen his personal power and to organise institutions to serve it, not the other way round. But here parallels stop and the mystery begins. Having achieved all this, Putin suddenly decides to step down. In the name of what? The constitution? Bowing to the proclaimed rules in order to give the Russians a good example? But even if it were so (which it isn’t, because he has already broken these rules by becoming head of a party), isn’t it clear that it is too late? Power will follow Putin wherever he goes. It is not by chance, that, according to some Russian sources, up-and-coming officials at the upper-middle level are now orientating their careers towards the Russian “White House” – the seat of the government – and not towards the presidency. They know where the power is.

Evgenia Albats, one of Russia’s top political commentators, quotes the story of how in 2000 Madeleine Albright was asked whether she thought that Putin was there for a long time. Her reply was “forever”. It is hard to disagree.

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