RUSSIA: by Vladimir BukovskyNews Weekly
What Vladimir Putin's election signifies
, April 22, 2000
Vladimir Bukovsky is a former Soviet dissident, author and political prisoner.
Can we imagine the news "a former SS-man has become German Chancellor" being greeted with enthusiasm by the West? And yet, this is exactly what happens time and again whenever a KGB man makes it to the top of the Russian pyramid. Starting with Yuri Andropov, proclaimed to be a jazz-loving "closet liberal", followed by his protege Gorbachev, and later Prime Minister Primakov, Stepashin, and now Vladimir Putin, the new President-designate of the Russian Federation - each of them was greeted in his time as the final solution to Russia's problems, as a brave reformer and a guarantor of stability.
Putin's program remains unknown.
Despite the media, he is not even a terribly impressive product of the KGB, with his cloak and dagger career being confined mainly to within the secure perimeter of Eastern Germany and never surpassing the rank of colonel. But the praise and expectations heaped on him in the West are extraordinary. At last, at last we are going to see a radical turn for the better, with law and order being firmly enforced throughout the vastness of Russia, while democracy and the market economy will finally take root there.
Ironically, despite all this hype, no-one can tell anything about Putin's program, or whether he has any. A few quotations from his past speeches, ostensibly favouring democracy in Russia, are floated around, but an equal number of quotations with the opposite meaning can be as easily found. All we really know is that as Prime Minister, he pledged to increase military spending by 57%. In short, we are observing what was predetermined by the last ten years of development, or rather by the lack of it: a return to power of the KGB, with Putin being just a faceless representative of the corporation.
History might judge Yeltsin more leniently than I do, but I cannot describe his Presidency better than a decade of wasted opportunities. When the August 1991 coup collapsed, and power fell into his lap, he did absolutely nothing to finish off the old regime.
At the time of his maximal popularity, when he was practically unopposed, he did not dismantle the totalitarian structures of the state. It was not enough just to seal off the Party's headquarters and to confiscate its property. The other parts of the totalitarian machinery needed to be dismantled as quickly as possible, including the KGB, with its intricate system of secret agents; the monstrously oversized army, with its all too powerful industrial base; and the ministries, which were still controlling every aspect of production and distribution.
Above all, the very essence of the Communist regime should have been delegitimised once and for all by a systematic exposure of its crimes, preferably in an open trial or a public inquiry where relevant documents from the party and the KGB archives could have been presented and publicised through the media.
Instead, all he did was to shuffle the old bureaucracy deck, as a result of which bureaucracy just multiplied like bacilli, filling the vacuum of power. Even his economic "reform", publicised in the West as a step towards free market, was in fact a total disaster.
It "privatised" most lucrative state property into the hands of either the nomenclatura, or outright criminals, while the bulk of the population became 20 times poorer. This alone has discredited the ideas of democracy and market economy for decades to come, thus making old communists look good by comparison.
As for Yeltsin, this disaster signified the beginning of his long retreat. If by the spring of 1992 he had to sacrifice his policy, by autumn he had sacrificed his team, while by the spring of 1993 he was already fighting for his political survival. Even storming the White House in October and dispersing the old Supreme Soviet by force did not make his position more secure: while the new parliament (Duma) was hardly better, from that moment onwards he became virtually a hostage to the "power ministries" (the Army, the Interior and the new KGB - the FSB).
They became the only force in the country which still supported him, although, in Lenin's words, they supported him "as a rope supports the hanged". At the end, he was simply glad to hand his power over to them in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
Thus, we are watching now the logical conclusion of this drama, a short tragicomedy of Russian democracy. Needless to say, it does not signify a complete return to the totalitarian past, simply because nothing can bring that back. Ruthless and cunning as it may be, even the KGB cannot perform such a miracle. But they will certainly try.
The way they managed, for the first time in the post-Soviet era, to unite the whole Russian society, including "liberal intellectuals", by the bloody massacre in Chechnya is a harbinger of the things to come. Building the state on the blood of the innocent is their craft, the only way they know how to "guard Russia's national interests". And the result is always the same: much blood and no state ...
Is this really what the West wants?