By David J. Smith
Tbilisi 24 Saati
February 18, 2008
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s two farewell performances—farewell as president, anyway—revealed no new substance.
Instead, his February 8 Development Strategy to 2020 speech and his February 14 mega-press conference showcased a persistent, popular and pugnacious Kremlin strongman who increasingly defines Russia in terms of foreign bogymen.
|Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin
Владимир Владимирович Путин
Putin’s twelve-year strategy—to use his word—must have brought a smile to the face of anyone nostalgic for Soviet times. It was stuff worthy of a Communist Party Congress: denunciation of earlier times, glowing progress report, indignant criticism of unnamed officials, frank talk of what is yet to be done and a pinch of paranoia.
Putin’s Russia is looking more-and-more Soviet—or maybe some of us are only now noticing how Russian the Soviet Union was.
These days, of course, Putin mixes capitalist and socialist themes. Investment, stock market capitalization and GDP are all skyrocketing.
And Russia has made major advances in machine building, transportation, housing, education and health care. One expected happy peasant girls to dance across the stage, their baskets brimming with food for the people!
However, Putin’s February 8 speech was more notable for what it did not say. Russia’s soon-to-be prime minister failed to mention Dmitry Medvedev, the man he chose for Russians to elect as president on March 2.
|Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev
Дмитрий Анатольевич Медведев
Medvedev, it seems, has little to do with Putin’s strategy to persist in the Kremlin.
In his 4½-hour Saint Valentine Day press conference, though, Putin managed a few words about Medvedev. Prime Minister Putin will place President Medvedev’s picture on his wall. “We will establish our personal relations,” said Putin, “I assure you there will be no problems here.”
There will be no problems because Putin reread the Russian Constitution to achieve an understanding that had eluded him during eight years as president. “The highest executive authority in the country is the government, which is led by the prime minister.”
Putin’s Duumvirate with Medvedev may change some of the Kremlin’s personal dynamics and style, but he said, “If I see that in this post I can continue realizing these goals, I will work as long as possible.”
Though Putin’s switcheroo may appear odd to some westerners, his persistence in the Kremlin is fine with most Russians.
With the presidential election less than two weeks away, Medvedev shuns campaigning and debates, counting on Putin’s popularity to elect him president. Expect him promptly to appoint Putin prime minister.
With this kind of popularity, it was appropriate for Putin to give his Castroesque press conference on February 14. An adoring Russian journalist even passed him a Valentine Day present—a wire service photo captured Putin leaving the stage clutching the pink and red heart.
In this loving environment, concern for the integrity of elections and the scrutiny of foreign observers is misplaced. Indeed, there will be no observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the foremost election observation group.Asked about the OSCE spurning the March 2 presidential election, a pugnacious Putin replied, if the election monitors want to teach something, “Let them teach their wives to make shchi.” (Shchi is a Russian cabbage soup.)
And there was plenty more in that vein.
Asked about reports of corruption, he replied that these were rumors that journalists “picked from a nose and smeared onto their papers.”
One might dismiss these remarks as crude muscle flexing for domestic consumption, but Putin’s pugnacity sparks greater concern when considered with his apparently growing paranoia in the international arena.
“I cannot but say a few words…about our foreign policy strategy,” said Putin toward the end of his strategy speech. No foreign policy strategy followed—nothing about trade, neighbors, world peace, climate change or any of the usual foreign policy topics.
Instead, Putin recapitulated his familiar grievances against the west: American missile defenses in Central Europe, “a new spiral in the arms race,” purportedly violated treaties and NATO enlargement.
Then he added, “A fierce battle for resources is unfolding, and the whiff of gas or oil is behind many conflicts.”
In his press conference, Putin connected western criticism of Russian elections with disagreement on Kosovo: “Who is going to listen to Russia’s position on Kosovo if Russia itself is supposedly an undemocratic country?”
On most of these matters the Russian position is just plain wrong.
On Kosovo, Moscow has a point, but stupid western diplomacy is just that, not an anti-Russian plot. Criticism of Russia’s democracy deficit is well founded and unconnected to Kosovo.
But cogent arguments only detract from the image Putin is creating. “We are effectively being forced into a situation where we have to take measures in response, where we have no choice but to make the necessary decisions.”
One cannot escape the fear that Putin is not cataloging Russian foreign policy challenges—or even grievances—but defining Russia by his paranoia.
David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington.
Peace and Freedom wishes to thank Ambassador Smith andMr. James T. Hackett who made use of this article on the internet possible.