Putin has approached his career with singular ambition and purpose, yet he is also the beneficiary of multiple events and forces currently at play in Russia and in the West. He has been described by numerous authors as “the right man at the right place at the right time.”
- He is undeniably a product of Russia’s Soviet authoritarian past. Born and raised under the Communist regime, he was schooled in the anti-Western suspicion and hostility that characterized the era.
- He has been adept at taking advantage of what Yeltsin accomplished in his term as the country’s first post-Communist leader. Alongside political and economic reforms, Boris Yeltsin’s government set the precedent for consolidation of power in the office of the Presidency, which Putin has perfected. It was under Yeltsin that the Russian constitution was written, which favored the President over the legislature. In the uncertain days following the fall of the Soviet Union, official diplomatic and domestic institutions were left undeveloped in the new republic, and personal connections prevailed. Without clear laws, Yeltsin and his favored elites ran the country as an oligarchy, dispensing favors and using their networks to manipulate society at large. Wealth and power were concentrated through privatization schemes, and corruption was rampant.
- Yeltsin, despite attempts at liberal reforms, set the stage for what many have called the “law of rulers” in place of the “rule of law.” Under Yeltsin, government corruption and the use of public assets to accumulate wealth, were obvious. No checks and balances were built into the system in the formative first years of the new republic, and no historical precedent or political traditions existed to suggest that these protections would develop organically.
- During Yeltsin’s presidency, the economic crisis that had precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union intensified. The majority of people felt that they were worse off than they had been under Communism. Russia was forced to relinquish its empire, experienced a recession culminating in an economic collapse in 1998, and became deeply indebted to Western nations. Former Warsaw Pact allies turned toward the West. NATO expanded despite US and European promises. People were starving; crime soared.
- The fear and suffering of the Russian people was acute when war broke out in the internal republic of Chechnya. Mysterious bombings attributed to “terrorists” occurred throughout Russia, including in Moscow. In a survey for The Economist, 63% of Russian people interviewed in 1999 described the government system as “anarchy,” and over half reported feeling that the country was better off pre-1985. Many experts have noted that the Russian population at the turn of the century hungered for a strong leader as the chaos intensified and Yeltsin’s health declined, apparently due to alcoholism.
- Putin’s rise, therefore, seems at least partially the product of a longing for authority and leadership. People wanted stability above all else; Putin’s consolidation of power was a welcome change.
- Many experts have described Putin’s popularity as at least partially the result of Western policies toward Russia since the Yeltsin era. When the Soviet Union fell, the West suddenly lost the rivalry that had been the focus of foreign policy for a generation. Reactions were often contradictory. On one front, scores of economic advisors, civil society consultants, NGOs, and others saw a window of opportunity to push for liberal reforms in Russia. These efforts were undertaken with a variety of motives, and met with mixed results.
- In other ways, the West seemed to ignore developments in Russia in the 1990s and early 2000s. Western countries at times appeared dismissive, ignoring Russia’s concerns over the NATO bombing of Serbia, and over efforts to expand membership of NATO and the EU. Loans to Russia were made with stringent conditions attached, and some critics felt that the West lacked the commitment to help Russia along the long road to democratic reform. When Communism fell, a seemingly haphazard approach to integrating Russia into the West ensued. Little assistance was offered to develop Western-style institutions and rule of law. Most believe this justified some of Putin’s subsequent actions as he went on to use Russia’s wounded pride and sense of betrayal at the hands of the West to awaken Soviet-era nostalgia.
Next: Inside Modern Russia: The Russian System of Government: Dmitry Medvedev