Hoover Daily Report

Tightening the Screws in Russia

Monday, January 24, 2000

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s acting president, will likely be chosen the country’s second president in elections to be held on March 26. This is not good news for the Western democracies. What can we expect from a Putin presidency, which, if he decides to ignore term limits, could extend twenty-five years or more, longer than Stalin’s reign?

The parliamentary elections held in December showed that Russia has slipped down a notch from an "electoral democracy"—it never achieved the status of a "liberal democracy"—to a "pseudodemocracy," in which the ruling regime skews the rules of the game and vitiates the possibility of reasonably honest election results. Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are other examples of pseudodemocracies.

In the recent parliamentary elections, state television functioned as an instrument of proregime propaganda and as an attack dog to savage candidates viewed as dangerous to the country’s leadership (especially the Yevgenii Primakov–Yurii Luzhkov alliance and the Yabloko bloc). Boosted up by the regime were General Sergei Shoigu’s Unity bloc, the Union of Right Forces, and the Zhirinovskii bloc. All three ardently supported the war in Chechnya.

As the noted former Soviet dissident Sergei Grigoryants has recently observed, "A strong state administered by a strong KGB has always been the goal of that organization." Vladimir Putin embodies the traditional strivings of that organization. His biography offers noteworthy parallels to that of the late Yurii Andropov, who chaired the USSR KGB for fifteen years and, before being felled by illness, became party general secretary. Andropov served from 1953 to 1957 as ambassador to Hungary and was for ten years party secretary for relations with socialist states. Putin, for his part, spent fifteen years (1975–1990) in East Germany running operations against West Germany and also monitoring the loyalty of Soviet troops based there.

Domestically, a "tightening of the screws," as Russians are wont to term it, is already under way. The Russian Secret Police (FSB) in late December assumed de facto control over the entire telephone system of the country. The Russian Ministry of Communications has announced that it wants to authorize (or not authorize) the opening of all new sites on the Internet. An Orwellian world in which the regime seeks to monitor and control telephone, fax, and Internet communications is emerging.

In foreign affairs, a Putin regime can be expected vigorously to push for the reintegration of what Putin terms "post-Soviet space." The formal conjoining of Russia and Belarus into a new "union state" is under way, with Putin’s strong backing. Using the shibboleths of a struggle against Islamic terrorism and the alleged mistreatment of the "Russian diaspora," as well as subversion, Putin can be expected to put harsh pressure on all former Soviet republics, especially the states of the South Caucasus and Central Asia, with their oil and gas riches and key pipeline routes, to join his new union state.

As was the case with Andropov’s general secretaryship, a Putin presidency will serve to keep the West very much on its toes.