Standard of the President of the Russian Federation.
CREDIT: Wikimedia

For Putin Redux, Time Will Tell


The record will show that on Monday, May 7, 2012, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was sworn in for a third time as president of Russia by the president of the Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin.

The occasion was notable in a number of ways, perhaps most so in its relatively low-key nature. The ceremony opened with the Russian state flag, the presidential standard, and other symbols of state being brought into the Grand Kremlin Palace's St. Andrew Hall. There, before some 3,000 dignitaries, friends, and associates, Mr. Putin took the oath of office. The closest to pomp came in the parade of the Presidential Regiment on the Kremlin's Cathedral Square.

Following his inauguration, Mr. Putin addressed the assembly, and "citizens of Russia." Again, the speech was remarkable: first, for its brevity—about 600 words; second, for the restrained sobriety of its tone—there were no overt or even covert Putinesque asides aimed at the West, no saber rattling or political preening. The once and future president spoke of having "strengthened our country, " "returned our dignity," of a Russia "risen anew." He spoke of having traveled a "great and difficult road together," of "hard work and common effort," and of the "need today to continue our development and progress [toward] an effective and developing state, a solid economic and social foundation, and an active and responsible civil society."

The closest Putin came to any degree of cautionary geopolitical ambition for Western skeptics was when he spoke of "our determination in developing our vast expanses from the Baltic to the Pacific, and our ability to become a leader and center of gravity for the whole of Eurasia." And he tempered even this with the resolve "to live in a successful Russia that the world respects as a reliable, open, honest, and predictable partner."

Public reaction to the speech, and to the resumption by Putin of the presidency, was predictable. There were widespread demonstrations, with violence both from the riot police and the protesters themselves—The Moscow Times, which is generally hostile to Putin, reported seeing demonstrators "throwing asphalt, bottles, poles, and a Molotov cocktail."

Ironically, other anti-Putin voices were critical from the polar opposite direction; in a piece on May 9, Radio Kommersant commentator Konstantin von Eggert wrote that "Russian society today is more prosperous, more bourgeois, and, paradoxically, less appreciative of Putin's claim to be the 'stabilizer-in-chief.'" The writer criticizes Putin's "lack of forward-looking vision" and is dismissive of the president's attempt to "reinvent" his image. Von Eggert, and other commentators, conclude that even as Vladimir Putin resumes the office of president, "his era in office" and his influence, are "drawing to a close."

In the light of all this, I found it interesting to read once again a column written almost exactly two years ago by the foremost Western scholar of empire ["Russia should be expected to reassert itself," Dominic Lieven, Financial Times, May 14 2010]. In this Lieven writes:

"The love affair between Russia and the West in the era of perestroika was always likely to turn sour. The loss of empire is usually bitter. To imagine a British equivalent to the collapse of the Soviet Union you would have to think of the British Empire's disintegration in the 1930s, when for most British people it was still regarded both as fundamentally benevolent and as part of the natural order."

He went on: "In this context, Russian efforts to reassert international status and preserve a post-Soviet sphere of interest are unsurprising . . . such behavior is hardly unique among former empires."

In fact, he concludes: "shedding a land empire is always harder than letting go of overseas colonies. Britain had an empire, but Russia was one [my emphasis]; abandoning one's property is easier than facing challenges to one's identity. It is easier for London to take a relaxed attitude to events in Asia or the Middle East than for Russia to remain aloof from chaos in the Caucasus."

Why do I quote so extensively from Dominic Lieven here? First, because he makes eminently sound sense in helping us understand Russia, and indeed the Russia of Putin that has endured such opprobrium from the West. The reflections in his important historical narrative are hugely significant in the context of Russia under Putin redux.

Simply put, think how much worse things might have been; Russia is barely 20 years distant from not one, but three, cataclysmic reversals—military, economic and political. The "return of dignity" Putin referred to in his May 7 inauguration is clearly directed at the catastrophic decline of the first 10 of those 20 years, in the 1990s Yeltsin era. Russia's assertiveness in what used to be known as its "near abroad" has been focused more on economic than on military-hegemonic concerns. Note that Putin has proposed an economic zone of cooperation among Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, and has spoken more broadly of Russia as an "effective link between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region."

Where Russia has flexed muscles of late, this has been in response to events in Georgia and in Chechnya, Russia's "soft underbelly" and source of potential grave destabilization from which, as Lieven points out, it can ill afford to remain "aloof." With this emphasis on the economy—and bearing in mind that, when Putin was prime minister between 2008 and 2012, with responsibilities for the economy, Russia's GDP grew by 31 percent, foreign trade turnover increased by 7.5 percent and the average Russian salary increased by almost 40 percent—the contemptuous characterization of Putin as "stabilizer-in-chief" seems rather odd, as does the underlying assumption that the work of economic growth is done.

[Editor's note, added May 16, 2012: Russia had robust growth in the time of the Putin presidency, 2000-2008, but obviously suffered in the global economic turndown of 2008-9, when GDP declined by nearly 10 percent. GDP growth, therefore, has been pretty much flat over the past four years. However, figures released yesterday show that Russia in the first quarter of this year significantly outperformed other emerging market economies, growing by 4.9 percent year on year. In 2011, Russia's growth domestic product grew by 4.3 percent.]

The other principal accusation directed at Putin's Russia is that which covers concerns over human rights, corruption, and rule of law. These causes of unease are: [a] not limited to Russia, in terms of countries that we see advantage in doing business with; [b] again, to be judged in the context of a democracy that is barely two decades old; and [c] taken up in the Putin inaugural address. He speaks of "…..strengthen[ing] our country's democracy, constitutional rights and freedoms, and expand[ing] our citizens' participation in government and in setting our national agenda." All in all, it is a speech short on rhetoric, chest thumping, or threat, and long on reflection and sober intent.

The proof of the pudding is, of course, in the eating to come; but for now, the speech, and the man who delivered it, deserve the benefit of the doubt and a time out on the ad hominem attacks that have been the order of days past—if for no other reason than Vladimir Putin is the democratically elected president of a country that, for reasons we have often enumerated, remains vitally important for the United States and the West.

Carnegie Council provides an open forum for discussion of ethical issues in international affairs. For another view of President Putin's Russia, see Elections Without Change.