The Kremlin and the World from Gorbachev to Putin

Global Geopolitics Net
Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Copyright (c) 2007 Roger P. Hamburg, all rights reserved.

By Roger P. Hamburg

A recent article by Quentin Peel discusses Russia’s new assertiveness. Peel quotes a Kremlin official that “when we chose democracy and the free market, we changed the world. We made it a safer place. But what did we get in return? The west pushed Russia aside. They did not understand it. It was a huge stupidity and missed opportunity.”

Instead, in the Russian view the U.S pushed its global advantage with the end of the long cold war, economically and militarily on what the Russian see in retrospect as a moment of Russian weakness and disarray. Peel ends his essay with a quote from a former senior Kremlin official, Gavrilenko. “Leaders are chosen to preserve the status quo. Gorbachev was chosen to save the communist party. Putin was chosen by the oligarchs to secure their future. But neither succeeded”. There is no mention of Yeltsin who hand picked Putin to be a stabilizing figure.

I begin with Gorbachev, who has recently spoken approvingly of Putin and the new Russian sense of pride. Gorbachev is a deeply ambivalent figure. He did want a reformed modernized Soviet economy and a new contract with a society that had lost confidence in the future .I would say that without admitting it he was a Soviet Dubchek ,although he insisted that the East European revolutions of 1989 would NOT spread to the U.S.S.R.. He implied, like Churchill that he did not become general secretary to preside over the liquidation of the communist party and the U.S. S. R. He was applying “creative Leninism” to reassure his increasingly strident critics, especially in the military but at the same time get the sluggish economy “moving again”, in American parlance. This created the need for “glasnost” or “speaking up with the un Soviet slogan that “the success of perestroika depends on each of us,” not “the party as the mind, conscious, and honor of the people” in Leninist terms. His economic and political changes were inchoate and halting, reflecting the increased concerns of his critics, some who wanted to go forward faster, others who wanted to pull back lest all be lost. He displayed his own ambivalence in the interventions in Tblisi, Baku, and Vilnius on the eve of first Gulf War. But the “reforming autocrat ”presided over the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in December, 1991.” It resulted in the loss of an empire, a state, and virtually a civilization.

Yeltsin finished unevenly what Gorbachev had unwittingly started, the end of the monopoly of political power by the communist party, the first free election of a new Russian president, and unprecedented freedom of speech, the press, and the right to travel freely far beyond Gorbachev and the relative “thaw” under Khrushchev in the 50s. He may have completed what Gorbachev started without a clear indication of where the process was going. But there was a huge sense of loss of eastern Europe, especially the reunification of Germany and domestically what many Russians resented as a “fire sale” of state assets, the growing wealth of “the oligarchs”, and the financial ruin of many Russians whose attitude was epitomized by a Russian I met who said that Russia was NOT a “weak state” but a weak government” reflecting despair and disparagement, especially in 1998.

Putin “stabilized “ matters but perhaps not in the way that Yeltsin intended when he gave way to him. The former had a very favorable external environment as Gavrilenko attests with low global interest rates, high commodity prices (especially for oil and natural gas,) cheap domestic energy, and excess labor. As a result, Russia had a “healthy twin surplus on both the current account and the state budget.” GDP was growing at 7 % at the beginning of 2007.This was in contrast to Gorbachev’s plight; falling oil prices set in motion some contend by the Saudi “flooding” of the oil market at U.S. prodding. He faced near bankruptcy as a result. “New thinking” for example was in part a result of Gorbachev’s desire to create a more benign external environment with enemies to the south, west, China and a restive Eastern Europe. Gorbachev has insisted that the West had not met him half way. Economic aid was meager, Western “carpetbaggers” were plundering Russia with their advice and eventually the West and the U.S. in particular EXPANDED NATO to encompass the former Warsaw Pact states and the former Baltic republics of the U.S.S.R “meddled” in central Asia and supported the “colored” revolutions in Ukraine (Orange),Georgia (Rose) and Kyrgyzstan (Tulip). Parenthetically, a Polish diplomat said at a meeting that I attended that NATO was a safeguard against the aggressive intentions of a future Russian government even though Washington agreed to include Russia in a consultative role. In addition in the 1990s there was also a Western bombing campaign in Bosnia and Kosovo that raised Russian hackles, even from Yeltsin.

A more strengthened self-confident Russian state in current conditions was almost anticipated by many. Gorbachev was respected in the West but reviled by many as presiding over a new “time of troubles” in Russia. There is lingering resentment against him, even by some “liberals.” There is tighter state control, especially of the electronic media, and the disappearance and murder of Kremlin critics, at least with the silent acquiescence of Putin. There are the well publicized spy cases like Litvinenko and increasing Russian bluster internationally like the over flights over Estonia before I was in Tallinn in the fall of 2005. There was Russian disapproval of the second U.S, attack in Iraq after Gorbachev stood aside in Gulf 1. There remains the unsettled issue of the Russian stance toward Iran and a doctrine of “sovereign” or “managed “ democracy plus catering to the electorate with increased nationalism as the impending elections to the State Duma and the choice of a successor to Putin as president draw near. The Russian people are a new element in the equation. There is the spectacle of the U.S. mired in Iraq with its military options and diplomatic stance weakened, a kind of “come-up-pence” that some Russians may relish.

But Russian growth is driven by the need for external borrowing and the need not to become in thrall to higher energy prices. There is the appreciation of the ruble which may not be sustainable because of the resulting inflation. It was 9% last year. In addition there is STILL the need for foreign investment and expertise which the Russians, trying to strengthen and expand state control of key economic sectors couple this with an expressed or implied need for foreign investment. One notes is the greater and greater role of the “siloviki”, people of power but a sense that the Kremlin is NOT “unified” and Putin may not be a strategist but a tactician responding (in Soviet terms ) to “the changing correlation of forces”. But what was feared by many has NOT happened, the restoration of power to the communists or a union of “Red” (communist) and Brown (fascist) forces.

Russia is at best a chameleon and there is some evidence that Putin may be more liberal in his view than many Russians with “liberals” like Nemstov and Yavlinsky discredited, some by their own admission. But Moscow, while hardly a partner can have “parallel” interests , .with the U.S. and EU. This might include preventing a nuclear Iran with some cooperation on the North Korean issue. Russians are traveling .I met some tourists in Prague, for example. Much will ultimately depend on impending elections in both Russia and the U.S. and how the American dilemma in Iraq is resolved. There is NOT total subservience domestically to authoritarianism either. Russia is NOT a democracy or market economy in any sense of the words but it is not communist either and does not have at this point the global ambitions and reach of the former Soviet state, something that Gorbachev and Yeltsin implicitly admitted.


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