Indeed, in spite of some progress (over the last years, the GNP has grown 5 to 7 percent per year), the country's economic prospects remain dubious. Many experts have pointed out that the current growth rate has been produced largely by the high price of oil, which provides the lion's share of the budget. At a recent conference in Moscow on the topic of Russia's future, a leading Russian economist, Evgenii Yasin, explained that it is difficult to predict which road the country will take in the next decades, because the process of modernizing the economy has not yet begun. Economic uncertainties are compounded by the ambivalence of the Kremlin's policy toward big business. This concern heightened after the arrest of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky and several of his colleagues from the Yukos company.
It is not easy to forecast the progress of the Russian military in the next five to ten years. On one hand, the Kremlin has made enormous efforts to modernize the army and improve its material status. On the other hand, the actual progress is minimal, and the military continues to complain about the lack of funding for training pilots, feeding soldiers and housing officers. The future of the war in Chechnya is unclear (in particular because terrorist acts continue to haunt the country and its capital). The Russians--ordinary people and experts alike--are divided in their attitudes toward this conflict.
The fate of the Kremlin's struggle against corruption and crime is also uncertain. While many people are skeptical about whether Putin's administration will curb the lawlessness in society, there are some optimists who believe that progress can be made. Russian foreign policy is even more difficult to predict, particularly in regard to the United States. Russia could emerge as an American adversary, ally, or play both roles simultaneously. Relations with China and the Muslim World are difficult to project in the long-term, as are Russian attitudes toward the former Soviet republics--Ukraine and Georgia in particular.
There is only one element of contemporary Russia that has demonstrated a steady trend: the country's move from nascent democracy to a society with autocratic political rule. Putin has been shaping this transformation since he took control of the country. In only three years he eliminated all traces of the division of power. He turned the parliament into a puppet institution, not unlike the Soviet Supreme Council of the past. The judicial system has become as obeisant to Putin as it was to the Soviet masters of the Kremlin. Putin has also reduced the independence of the media, which had been autonomous during the Yeltsin regime. Russian TV is now a direct instrument of the Kremlin. Putin appears on TV no less than five to seven times during a 30-minute news program. In fact, he makes more television appearances than comrade Brezhnev did in the Soviet times. In most cases, the president is portrayed as a great leader who takes care of everything in the country.
Putin has actually surpassed his icons, Stalin and Andropov, in some areas. For instance, never in the Soviet past did the KGB and the army play such a prominent role in the management of society as they do today. Asked in a recent poll about Putin's major constituency, 51 percent of the Russians said "people in uniform" (15 percent pointed to "ordinary people"). According to Olga Kryshtanovskaia, a leading expert on Russian elites, officers and generals make up 58 percent of the people in the highest echelons of power (compared to 5 percent in 1988).
There are no serious grounds to suppose that full-fledged democracy will reenter the Russian political scene in the next decade. Only a few Russian liberals still display some hope for a better future. The liberal newspaper Novaia Gazeta, for instance, recently called on the people to join together under the old slogan borrowed from tsarist Russia, "Down with Autocracy!"
Putin's political course is supported by a majority of the population. The high level of political stability in the country, which is greatly valued by the people, contrasts with that of the previous regime, and its flamboyant and often drunken president. As the prominent Russian sociologist Yurii Levada recently stated, while Putin has a high approval rating (it oscillates between 70 and 90 percent), many Russians are dissatisfied with several aspects of their everyday lives (material needs and physical security in particular), and are unhappy about the way public problems are being handled (most notably the fight against crime and corruption, and the war in Chechnya). However, most people continue to see Putin as the guarantor of political order and a decent international status for the country.
Meanwhile, the Russians have lost respect for democratic procedures. Elections are perceived as instruments that legitimate the power grabbed by bureaucrats and rich people. The majority of the Russians, including rich people and the intelligentsia (some with sadness, most with joy), sincerely believe that Western-style democracy has no future in the country in the next decades. As Levada recently formulated, "The democratic model turned out to be 'foreign' to the majority of the population." Only 10 percent of the Russians, according an October 2003 survey conducted by Levada's polling firm, said that the right to elect political leaders is important to them. (According to the data of the Fund of Public Opinion in January 2004, while 64 percent has no doubt that there will be no "serious competition on the imminent presidential election," only half of them condemn this circumstance.) Though rather indifferent to the governing of the country, many Russians, particularly young people, do support the maintenance of individual liberties, such as the right to own private property, the freedom of the press, and the right to travel abroad and throughout the country. So far Putin's regime tolerates several freedoms. Today, fear is spreading only among politicians and journalists, particularly those from the opposition, as well as among businesspeople, whose fear increased decisively with the arrest of Khodorkovsky.
The Russians link the emergence of capitalism and democracy to the great increase in disorder, crime and corruption. The meager advances in the standard of living, which are more important to the people than democratic institutions, have been associated with Putin's leadership and his retreat from the Western model of society. Irina Khakamada, a prominent Russian politician who wants to represent the liberals in the presidential election, said in January 2004 that "Putin gave us an offer to exchange our freedoms for bread...and many Russians accepted this trade."
In December 2003, a survey found that almost two-thirds of the Russians endorsed "the country's current direction." Russians simply do not see an alternative to Putin among other politicians. The December survey mentioned above found that less than 5 percent of the population could name someone to lead the country after Putin.
With the president's encouragement, the Russian mind set is moving toward nationalism and exceptionalism, particularly among elites, and even among those who consider themselves liberals. In February 2003, according a survey conducted by the Fund of Public Opinion on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of Stalin's death, the number of people who regarded Stalin in a favorable light exceeded the number of those who spoke negatively about him by 30 percent. The last parliamentary election in December 2003, even if it was deeply influenced by the authorities, still reflected the mood of society. Taken together, the liberals garnered no more than 10 percent of the popular vote. At the same time, aggressive nationalists, who had become quite visible before 1999, achieved great success. They earned almost a quarter of all votes. In some ways, Putin has even tried to slow the country's powerful anti-Western xenophobic momentum, as he demonstrated during a television interview in late December 2003.
The developments in Russia are similar to the circumstances in many other countries that began the transition to capitalism since the 1980s, but failed to develop liberalism, and maintained a brand of authoritarianism that merely imitated democracy. The phrases used by Russians to describe their political system--labels such as "managed democracy," "virtual democracy," and "facade democracy"--are also used by people in many other nations to portray their respective systems.
This is the third time in the last century that Russia changed the vector of its development. The first shift occurred in 1917 when Russian society, after the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, started moving toward the totalitarian regime, which took its final form under Stalin's leadership at the end of the 1920s. This regime existed until 1953 when Russia began to move back toward liberal society. By the beginning of perestroika, the zeitgeist of liberalism pervaded the minds of a majority of the Russians, from top apparatchiks, many of whom were labeled "rosy" (or hidden liberals), to ordinary people who were fed up with the problems in society. With the exception of a few hardened Stalinists, everybody dreamed in one way or another about the liberalization of society. While some had only cosmetic changes in mind, others hoped for drastic changes, such as the right to run small private businesses, or even the establishment of real elections with a few candidates from the Communist Party. Nobody, including Andrei Sakharov, fantasized about the emergence of a true democracy or market economy, though the spirit for change was indeed strong in these years. Even Andropov, during his short rule, mused about the decentralization of the economy and a wider engagement of intellectuals in social life--ideas that later materialized during Gorbachev's perestroika as the country moved quickly toward democratic reforms.
The Russian train has switched tracks once again, but it would be wrong to blame Putin for this change. In fact, Putin is the instrument of a new, anti-democratic spirit in Russia. Although he presided over the anti-liberal perestroika, these changes were first initiated before his arrival to power. Ultimately he serves the forces that chose him, in the person of Yeltsin, to complete this new transition of Russia.
This reversal began in 1993 when Boris Yeltsin ordered the shelling of the freely elected leftist parliament, which had rebelled against Yeltsin's illegal decision to dismantle it. Whatever the reasons for this fatal decision (for instance, the danger of a Communist restoration), it signaled a retreat from the giddy days of nascent Russian democracy in 1990-1993, and stimulated the withdrawal from genuine democracy. Since the bloody showdown with the parliament, Yeltsin's regime moved inexorably away from democratic principles, while enjoying the full support, either direct or indirect, of Gaidar and his friends. The fraudulent referendum on the constitution, endorsed in December 1993, provided the Russian president with power similar to that of a monarch. This authority allowed for Yeltsin's controversial reelection in 1996, which came in spite of his low rating.
Contrary to his numerous apologists, it was Yeltsin who ultimately betrayed democracy when he chose as his successor not a champion of liberal principles, but an obscure politician with a KGB past and sympathy for Stalin and the Soviet empire, who promised Yeltsin and his family immunity. Yeltsin was able to initiate this new trend toward authoritarianism because the same vector of change had dominated the minds of many Russians since the mid-1990s. Nostalgia for the past and the Soviet empire embraced people from all walks of life, from refined intellectuals to the uneducated Russian lumpen. Only 20 percent of the Russians gave a negative appraisal of the Communist system; only 21 percent praised the multiparty system of 1999-2000. Most Russians rejected the Western model of life, and supported the idea of Russia taking its own path in history.
With Vladimir Putin in power the shift toward the authoritarian state accelerated at the same rate as Gorbachev's famous move in the opposite direction. In 1986-1989, the general secretary managed to dismantle the foundation of the Soviet system. In the same amount of time, Putin was able to destroy most elements of the democratic system and restore certain aspects of the society that existed prior to Gorbachev's perestroika. (So far, there are not visible any social group, any political party or movement which vowed to stop or all the more reverse the authoritarian trend. We do not see in Russia almost none intellectual who is ready to put on risk his or her career and well being for the sake of Russian democracy. What a contrast with the sixties and seventies when the Russian intelligentsia advanced many dozens of heroes who challenged the Kremlin and the KGB ready to go to prison and exile!)
There are some differences between the Soviet times and Putin's Russia. While the current regime has rejected much of the liberalism that emerged in the early 1990s, some elements of the liberal stage remain. Russia represents an exotic mix of its historical components, harking back to Hegel's famous law, "negation of negation." The liberal stage negated the totalitarian past, only to be negated by a new authoritarian stage, which has resulted in a sort of synthesis of the two previous stages in history.
In some cases, elections in Russia still look more legitimate than the pure show business of elections in the USSR. The recent reelection of the president of Bashkorstan, for instance, was absolutely fraudulent, but the highly competitive mayoral election in Ekaterinburg was almost genuine. Unlike the Soviet past, private businesses play a crucial role in the Russian economy, even though they are at the mercy of the central and local administration.
The autocratic system that formed under Putin is still in a fluid state. Nobody knows how far the current regime will go in tightening down the bolts. Will Russians and foreigners be free to travel internationally in 2005 or 2008? Will the few liberal media that still exist, such as the newspaper Moskovskii Novosti and the radio station Ekho Moskvy, endure the next few years? (Grigorii Yavlinbsky said in his interview to Moskovskii Komsomolets in the end of January 2006 that he does not exclude in future even "the physical extermination." Few other politicians, among them Vladimir Ryzhkov, expressed the same apprehensions, in particular about the Kremlin behavior after March 14, 2006.) Whatever will be specific developments there will be no radical change in the Russian political system in the next decade, or perhaps longer. No one had the slightest doubt that Putin, who had no serious rivals, would be reelected in March 2004. In fact, many are confident that he will stay in power after his second term ends in 2008. (Contrary to the past, Putin in February 2006 practically ceased to pretend that he is totally against the change of the Constitution in his favor, and State Duma launched the process to provide the president with a longer term.) The best Russian minds have offered competing prognoses of what type of subterfuge Putin and his advisers will use to achieve this goal.
No analyst, however, can be sure about what Putin will do, particularly in the international arena. Putin's mind continues to puzzle Moscow experts. "We know very little about the president's plans," said the famous Russian politician and scholar Victor Sheinis at a recent conference in Moscow. Any leader with autocratic power has a wide variety of choices. In the next years, Putin can select among several different strategies in the foreign arena. Depending on what suits his needs, he may cooperate with the United States, or take a more hostile stance.
In the next years, the United States will be faced with a Russia that combines autocracy with state capitalism. In this context, American officials have no chance at influencing the political processes in the country. In an article published in Izvestia (January 26, 2004), Collin Powell implored the Russians to follow the rules of democracy in the country. In spite of the article's considerate tone, it did not resonate even slightly in the minds of Russian elites. A deeply negative image of the American political system, which has been created by the Kremlin-controlled media in the last years, has blunted the U.S. critique of Russian politics. The country today is not a place where America can impose its political values. Asked on the eve of Putin's visit to the U.S. in September 2003, "What do you associate with America?" only 3 percent of the Russians pointed to its political system (14 percent pointed to its wealth, and 10 percent said the economy). As a leading Russian pollster, Nikolai Popov, noted in Kommersant Daily, it is "not politically correct" in the country to say something good about the United States.
The intervention of high U.S. officials into the Russian political process will only irritate Russian-American relations. (And in view of the popular animosity toward the U.S. and the lack of the strong domestic movement in favor of democracy will be only counterproductive for the future of liberal Russia.)
The U.S., as any other nation, pursues its national interests by pressuring other countries when common goals are not strong enough to achieve full cooperation. There is, however, a specific limit to the effectiveness of this strategy in the case of Russia, and any other country. The U.S. and Russia have many common objectives, including the fight against international terrorism, the prevention of the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and the enhancement of economic relations, particularly on the sale of Russian oil to the United States. However, there are still several disagreements between the two countries on how to achieve these and other goals. It is not reasonable for Washington to pester the Kremlin with public complaints about the internal political developments in the country. There is no chance to change the Kremlin's stance toward democratic ideals. As its primary strategy, Washington should encourage Putin to regard good relations with the United States as useful to both Russia and him personally.
At the same time, American public opinion and media should continue to monitor the domestic developments in Russia and express its outrage each time when the democratic principles are stomped on by the new masters of the country, mostly with the KGB background. How paradoxically it looks: Russian leaders as their predecessors in the Soviet past are concerned about their images in the West, and still think about the reaction of the Western public opinion to their deeds.
Vladimir Shlapentokh is professor in the sociology department at Michigan State University. The author wishes to thank Joshua Woods for his editorial contribution to this article.