Commentary: Deciphering Putin

Autocrat? Democrat? The truth is more complex

It's getting harder and harder to figure out Vladimir V. Putin. At times the Russian President looks like the reincarnation of a Soviet-era dictator, restricting the media, abolishing regional elections, and interfering in a neighboring country's election. At other times he acts like a bold market reformer, risking the ire of babushkas from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok by cutting popular communist-era benefits such as free transportation and medicine for retirees and veterans.

Which Vladimir Putin is real? Which side of his personality will be dominant in the remaining three years of his second term?

Those questions will be much on the minds of George W. Bush and his advisers when they meet with Putin and his entourage in Slovakia in late February. This meeting, with suspicions building on both sides, will be a far cry from their earlier get-togethers when the two seemed to be forging a new era in Russia-U.S. relations. Any further progress with Russia depends on having a better understanding of its complex leader. Here are some of the assumptions the West now makes about Putin -- and the complex reality that makes any definitive statement about him impossible.


Putin, 52, has no secret agenda to restore the communist past. His generation grew up under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, when communist ideology was already a joke, and educated young Russians envied the freedoms and prosperity of the West. "Putin is a very international person, and he wants Russia to be Westernized," says Sergei Markov, a Russian political scientist close to the Kremlin.

So why do so many of his policies now seem to be doing exactly the opposite? In part, Putin's personality may be to blame. Although outwardly unemotional and logical, Putin can become passionate and unyielding if someone gets in his way once he has decided on a course of action. "He'll wait, and then crush you like a steamroller," says Sergei Kovalev, a Moscow psychologist who specializes in profiling politicians. Fear of weakness is an overriding concern to him. "We showed weakness, and the weak get beaten," Putin told the Russian nation after the terrorist attack on Beslan.

Putin's background in intelligence has reinforced his innate love of order, hierarchy, and organization. "His character and personality are definitely not those of a dictator. But he is a perfectionist and a controller," says Alexander Rahr, director of the Koerber Institute on Russia & the CIS in Berlin and a biographer of Putin.

These characteristics help explain his drive to create a strictly hierarchical political system. The betting is that Putin will go further in this direction. Russian political analysts worry that Putin will abolish municipal as well as regional elections. Civic organizations that get funding from abroad are under threat from KGB types who see them as fifth columnists.


It's a little more complicated than that. The ex-KGB colonel is, deep down, supremely suspicious of everyone's motives. "Putin thinks like a spy," says Markov. "If something bad happens, it's because someone did it deliberately." Political insiders say that Putin's decision to arrest Yukos owner Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky was not based on long-range economic strategy but on Putin's belief, encouraged by his security advisors, that Khodorkovsky was plotting against him.

Fears that Western powers are conspiring to encircle Russia may help explain Putin's moves late last year to try to ensure that a pro-Russian candidate won Ukraine's election. And after Beslan, Putin hinted openly that forces in the West encourage Chechen separatists to weaken Russia. He often responds to criticisms of his policies by pointing out similar shortcomings, real or imagined, in the West. For example, he compared last year's rigged elections in Ukraine with the disputed 2000 Presidential race in the U.S. And he believes governments the world over wield control over the press. At a December press conference he defended his policies toward the media this way: "The state always tries to secure its interests [and] reduce the amount of criticism.... In this respect, Russia is no better or worse than other countries."

Such suspicions are typical for ex-KGB types, known in Russia as siloviki (men of power), says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, director of the Center for Elite Studies at Russia's Institute of Sociology. "Siloviki think that democracy is a fairy tale, that there's no democracy in the USA or in Europe, that everything revolves around oil and nuclear weapons," she says.

To be fair to Putin, his suspicions and cynicism are often grounded in reality. Unlike many a U.S. President, Putin has an impressive grasp of facts and figures and can discourse for hours on a range of subjects. It's clearly not paranoid to believe that, left unchecked, corrupt oligarchs or Islamic militants represent a genuine threat to Russia's interest.


Putin's stubbornness and tendency to assume that all criticism is cynically motivated indicate that he isn't likely to backtrack on Yukos, Chechnya, or political reforms that centralize power. His habit of sticking to his guns cuts both ways, however. Putin is just as unlikely to sack his liberal ministers or abandon his economic reforms, although he may face growing difficulties in implementing them. Likewise, Putin is unlikely to make dramatic shifts in foreign policy.

The good news: Ukraine doesn't seem to be an issue, like Chechnya or Yukos, where he is simply deaf to all reason. Putin has shown signs of his old pragmatism by moving quickly to rebuild relations with new President Viktor Yushchenko.

Another positive: Because the Yukos affair was caused by a specific conflict with Khodorkovsky, Putin doesn't seem intent on re-nationalizing all of Russia's big companies. However, a situation where the President's attitudes toward individuals can have such far-reaching consequences has the potential for more shocks. Putin has already fallen out with three major oligarchs in as many years. Before going after Khodorkovsky, he drove media moguls Boris A. Berezovsky and Vladimir A. Gusinsky into exile. This over-personalization of politics is a problem of the Russian system.


Putin's cynical attitude toward democratic development may be simply a reflection of Russia's own backwardness. Putin "does not think Russian society is mature enough to take care of its own problems," says Lilia Shevtsova, senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a political think tank. "He believes what he is implementing is the Russian model of democracy." Yes, the president acts like a stern Tsar, but eventually a more democratic state is supposed to evolve -- albeit with some traditionally Russian authoritarian aspects.

It's often forgotten or ignored, but Putin had power thrust upon him. He did not actively seek office, and the general feeling is that Putin does not crave the powers of a dictator. "People of this type are driven by a sense of duty," says Kovalev. But there is a caveat. Putin's unwillingness to delegate authority or develop independent political institutions will make it hard for him to step aside in 2008 even if he wants to. Can he break out of this self-created box? As with so many questions in Russia, the answer can only come from its enigmatic leader.

By Jason Bush

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