Putin's assault

An expert on post-Soviet Russia explains how former spy leader Vladimir Putin is using the war in Chechnya to lock in the presidential election -- and why the U.S. doesn't mind a bit.

Published January 6, 2000 2:00PM (EST)

As the world celebrated the turn of the millennium, Russia celebrated a change in political leadership. On Dec. 31, Boris Yeltsin startled the world by stepping down from the presidency and passing the mantle to a relative unknown: then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Since the announcement, observers and journalists have speculated as to whether this man, a former head of the KGB, will bring desperately needed economic leadership to Russia -- and at what cost to democracy. Though the Russian presidential election is less than 12 weeks away, the acting president appears to have virtually no opponents.

The war against the breakaway region of Chechnya has shown to be a major factor in Putin's incredibly high 75 percent approval rating. Already bitterly devastated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians lost a war with Chechen insurrectionists in 1996 -- at a cost of up to 100,000 Chechen lives -- which made Chechnya a de facto, but not legal, independent state. The staunchly separatist region, which lies between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, is predominantly Muslim, and has had a long history of anti-Russian sedition since the time of the czars.

The war erupted again last October, after reports that Chechen separatists had bombed apartment buildings in Moscow and other Russian cities. In the face of international protest of human rights violations against the fierce but militarily weak Chechens, Russians insist that crushing the rebellion is a matter of national security.

Will public approval of a patriotic war eclipse any possibility for change in the chilly halls of the Kremlin? Michael Urban, professor of politics at the University of California at Santa Cruz, has authored several books on Soviet and post-Soviet politics. He spoke with Salon News about how to read between the lines of both Russian and Western reports on current events.

Is it inevitable that he will be elected president?

As much as anything can be inevitable, this seems to be. It seems that he really has no rivals at the moment. The party that borrowed his name in the election last December, the Unity Party -- which is not a party at all, just a collection of people thrown together by the people running the Kremlin and placed on the ballot, and which was associated with Putin day after day in the news -- surprised everybody by almost winning, missing first place by one percentage point. That and public opinion polls in which Putin scores about a 75 percent rating of approval -- which is simply unbelievable for Russia -- suggests that his popularity at the moment is soaring. A quick election would probably put him in the presidency for the next four years.

But he came out of nowhere, didn't he?


People don't know what his stands are on issues?

Of course not.

Is that contributing to his popularity?

Yes. At the moment, the Russians seem to be very grateful for one thing: There are tremendous symbolic victories, that are bought with blood, that appear on their television sets every day [in Chechnya]. This is the only thing they have to show for themselves for the last 10 years.

Russia feels itself pushed around. Its empire collapses. The country itself, the Soviet Union, disintegrates. Russia thereafter is not taken seriously in international affairs. NATO expands into its former sphere of influence. NATO plans to absorb the former Soviet republics. It would be a bit like the U.S.S.R. winning the Cold War, and the U.S. seeing Canada and Mexico join the Warsaw Treaty Organization, to be followed by Maine, Washington state and Michigan. This naturally would set off a great deal of concern, bordering on hysteria in our country. We can imagine how that would appear for the Russians themselves.

We can extend the analogy a little further, against the backdrop of an economic collapse. Everything is underfunded -- education, health, investment -- to the tune of maybe 15, 20 percent of what it was being funded 10 years ago. On the face of all that, if there were a rebellion in East Los Angeles, and the U.S. Army went in there to stop it and failed, and East L.A. became de facto independent, that would be the analogy with Chechnya. You can imagine how crazy people would be in this country. That's how crazy the Russians are today.

In his dismissal of international criticisms of the war, Putin seems to be appealing to an anti-Western, nationalist sentiment. Yet he says that he will cooperate with the West on economic issues. How do you see that playing out?

I don't know what that means. I think it means that they want to receive more loans from the West.

How do you look at their compounded debt and the additional World Bank loans playing out under Putin?

Those are bribes that the West sends to Russia to purchase services of the top Russian elite for any number of matters: Look the other way when NATO expands; intervene in Yugoslavia to advance Western efforts against the Serbian government; and basically behave yourselves in the world and accept American hegemony. In return for that we send you billions of dollars, and we're not that fussy about what you do with it. We've known for a very long time that that money, in the main, is simply ripped off, sent to Cypress, Switzerland and now we find out, Bank of New York. And the people who do that are the very people who receive this money literally in suitcases. There's no accounting whatsoever.

So there's been, in my estimation, under the form of economic assistance and the rest, a big scam, a big racket that's been going on between our top elite and theirs. In the face of this, it becomes important to remonstrate, to wave our fists at them about Chechnya and for them to wave their fists back at us about Chechnya so that each side assures its own that those in charge are minding the store and taking care of the national interests.

The facts of the matter are that we have done nothing about preventing the Russians from carrying out effectively a genocide in Chechnya during the first Chechen war, in which some 100,000 people were killed, mainly innocent civilians. Our president went to Moscow in the middle of that war and compared the Russian president (Yeltsin), who was prosecuting the war, with Abraham Lincoln.

In this war, despite all the rhetoric about human rights and other rubbish, what counts in this case is money. And the U.S. continues to back international institutions in sending more and more money to Russia. That's not free money. Already last year the Russian budget required more money in debt servicing than the Russian government received in aid. But it does mean fresh money, and money that those guys are prepared to play with. So as long as we're sending the money, we're sending the message that it's OK to do that.

Putin said recently that he wants to increase military spending. Will Russians object to that expenditure since it's run their economy into the ground before? Or do you think that the majority are so in favor of aggressive national leadership and the war against Chechnya that this won't hurt Putin in the election?

It's not so much that it ran their economy into the ground -- it is their economy. And what's happened in the last 10 years is that the industrial sector -- the defense sector -- has been very stagnant, and that amounts to a lot of unemployment. The Russians increased defense spending last year, beginning last January, and they'll continue to do that I think for a number of reasons. One, the people running the country now are mending fences and reestablishing the larger ties with the old Soviet elite, and that sector of arms production has been treated like a poor relation for the last 10 years. I think they're being invited back to the table. Secondly, they need a lot of weapons to carry out the kinds of policies that they're carrying out. As the Chechen case is concerned, this is not going to end with the capture of Grozny, this is going to be a long, protracted guerrilla war.

Finally, Russia wants to sell many weapons abroad to get foreign currency earnings. Here the U.S. has set an abominable example. We had always in the past argued that as long as Soviets are using arms as a way to get clients abroad, we have no other choice but to do the same thing. When the Cold War ended, Russia hugely cut back on its foreign arms sales. The Soviets and the Russians removed themselves almost entirely from those markets in the early '90s. And the U.S. did not follow suit, but rather moved itself into those markets to expand our arms sales. So the great opportunity to realize what the president of the U.S. used to talk about -- we shouldn't be the arms merchant of the world, we should be the peace merchant of the world, etc. -- was squandered, deliberately, by the U.S. It's lead to a situation now in which Russia has no interest whatsoever in refraining from selling arms and every reason to want to sell arms, both for hard currency and for potential influence. The arms industry in Russia [is likely to] go in that direction, as if we don't have enough wars, massacres and genocide in places like Africa and the far East today.

The bombing attacks on the Russian embassy in Beirut were apparently done by Lebanese militants in protests of the Chechen war. Do you think that will have any impact at all on the war, or on international responses to it?

It may be a signal of what this war is about. One way to paint it is a human rights violation. Another way to paint it is Russia's internal problem. A third way to paint it is, this is another anti-Islamic genocidal activity conducted by Christian powers. This kind of Islamic genocide, as this framework would say, was conducted against the Bosnians, against the Kosovars, and now it's being conducted again against the Chechens. And it's up to us, those who are loyal to Islam, to defend our brothers regardless of borders. I think that's the kind of thinking that stands behind that bombing, and that kind of thinking is certainly not going away with the capture of those people who perpetrated the bombing. It could expand.

Mikhail Gorbachev said in an interview with an Italian newspaper that he was very skeptical that things would improve in Russia under Putin. Despite Putin's firing of Yeltsin's daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, Gorbachev insisted that Putin is allied with exactly the same people in the Kremlin as was Yeltsin. His exact quote was this: "The regime won't change, there won't be a fight against corruption, the interests and the privileges of the oligarchy will be fully protected." What are your thoughts on Putin's willingness to shake up corruption in the Kremlin?

I agree with [Gorbachev's statement] 100 percent. It would be a little unseemly to keep on Yeltsin's daughter -- what's her qualification, except that she's Yeltsin's daughter? After pardoning Yeltsin, Putin's second act was to retain the services of Yeltsin's chief of staff and first deputy chief of staff. Those are the people that oversee the apparatus that runs the presidency, and it's the presidency if anything that runs the country. I think that apparatus has already been very penetrated and much staffed by former KGB, or what they call now Federal Security Services. Putin was head of the Federal Security Services until he became prime minister last August. We are in a position now to be speaking seriously about praetorianization, when a particular armed group of people, in this case secret services, effectively become the inner state. Putin is the leader of these people; a huge number of them are already working in the offices of the presidency. I see more and more a close connection between the secret police and the formal holders of state power in the presidency.

How does the Chechen war figure into this rise of secret service power in the Kremlin?

It's impossible to make the connection directly, but I'm very suspicious about those events that produced the mass approval and support for the Chechen war -- the bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow and one or two other cities in Russia last September. The Russians have been able to bring nobody to justice. It sounds very much like a Reichstag fire: the way Hitler came to power by getting rid of the communists, blaming the burning of the Reichstag on them. It seems to me this is a very comparable situation.

We have at least this much information: That the prime minister in charge is KGB. That these people are cold blooded and certainly would not be above such measures. Thirdly, that the previous prime minister, who was a Yeltsin loyalist who had only been in office three or four months, is abruptly terminated, with this KGB guy Putin put in his place. Soon the Chechen war erupts. During this period of time, citizens who were told to be vigilant actually caught a number of secret police planting bombs in an apartment in a place called Rostoff. These people were arrested and then let go. And the news story that the government put out was, this was a training exercise to see if the people's vigilance was up to the task of catching out these bombers. It's a bit far fetched.

Finally, in the newspapers about every three weeks, more bombs are discovered. None of these bombs goes off, but somehow the police get to know about a bomb that is hidden in the bushes in the countryside below Moscow. Or, something I was reading in the paper yesterday, somehow the police were on a quote "routine documents check" on a Tuesday, at midnight, they find an empty apartment in which they discover a huge supply of explosives all hooked up and ready to be detonated. It seems a little bit much to believe.

So with these things in mind -- the motivation, the capability, and then these extraordinary events -- I do not dismiss, and in fact tend to accept the idea that those bombings were staged by Putin and his friends in order to gain the presidency.

Despite Putin's eerie connection to the KGB, many people in the Western press seem excited about the possibility of economic reform that he could bring.

That's a code word that means absolutely nothing. They've had their reform. What it has produced is a small oligarchy of people who have stolen everything that was there to steal. That's been the reform. Any further reform would involve, I think, re-nationalization, and that's the last thing that any Western official wants to see. [Re-nationalization would mean] what used to belong to the state and was sold off for a song will be reconfiscated or reacquired by the state -- we're going to make this a national company again instead of a private one. That would be a reform. But so far, they've privatized their economy for nothing.

What is valuable has been taken by those politically well-connected people who run the country today. Some of them are called in our press "reformers" -- they're simply crooks. The money that is made from these organizations is not invested in Russia; it's sent abroad. It's not even gangsterism. As someone said the other day, Al Capone didn't put his money in Switzerland. It's simply slash and burn. These people have ruined the country. To deflect attention from that fact, they're playing another card: the national patriotic card. Here will be a strong man to give Russia the protection and the dignity that she needs. And that's what's behind the entire orchestration -- the television effort behind this war and the entire catapulting of an unknown person into a 75 percent approval rating, and apparently the presidency in a few weeks.

It's very shameless it seems to me. And for our commentators -- not all of them, of course, but too many of them -- especially for our vice president to talk about "reform" -- that just means "something good." Russia's experience of reform has been an unmitigated disaster. The last thing Russians want is more "reform." That's a word used for our audience. It has something to do with Russia becoming more like us, or some rubbish. Nothing could be further from the truth.

By Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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