Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 January 2000
Issue No. 464
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Putin's impossible equation

By Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed The first decision taken by Vladimir Putin as president of Russia was to grant Yeltsin and his family immunity against any prosecution in connection with the privileges the former president enjoyed, as well as protection against the confiscation or withdrawal of palaces, cars, documents or property. It is a decision that casts light on the nature of the 'constitutional coup' which occurred on the eve of the new century.

In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Mikhail Gorbachev suggested that Yeltsin had resisted resigning as much as he could, but had finally succumbed to the various forms of pressure brought to bear on him, including warnings by his doctors that the responsibilities of office were too heavy for his fragile state of health. Although Gorbachev's interpretation of events could be seen as a way of settling old scores, well-informed sources assert that Yeltsin's daughter Tatiana Diachenko, named by her father 'Counselor to the President', and who was regarded as the real person in power during the long periods of Yeltsin's absences, played an important role in convincing Yeltsin to step down -- even if the second decision taken by Putin was to dismiss Tatiana from all the posts she held.

Actually, Yeltsin's resignation is shrouded in mystery. He is certainly not the type of person who would willingly relinquish power six months before the expiry of his term, and has been particularly adept at juggling his prime ministers around in such a way as to ensure none of them ever had time to build up a power base at his expense.

In her official comment on Yeltsin's surprise resignation on New Year's Eve, US Secretary of Sate Madeleine Albright said she believed the transfer of power from Yeltsin to Putin was undertaken 'in a democratic way'. But the Clinton administration also described the bombardment of the Russian Parliament with rockets as an act that had been undertaken 'within the framework of democracy'. Clearly, how Washington rates Russia on the scale of democracy is determined less by objective criteria than by the sensitive nature of its relations with its former rival superpower.

Still, it is strange that the US Secretary of State should have chosen to describe the promotion of a former KGB agent into the position of president of Russia in such glowing terms, especially that before he was appointed prime minister by Yeltsin only five months ago, he was a little-known bureaucrat. It is even more strange considering that Putin's only claim to popularity is his avowed intention to continue the war in Chechnya until the separatist movement has been totally eradicated. A man of war, not of peace, Putin today alone holds the keys to Russia's formidable nuclear arsenal. Even if he agreed this week to a temporary cease-fire in Chechnya, it is only in terms of a respite to regroup Russian forces in preparation for the final onslaught.

The only way to put these disparate elements of information together into a coherent whole is to conclude that Putin's elevation to Russia's presidency was not in disagreement with the western world and may even have been with its complicity. The abrupt end of Yeltsin's 8-year reign came as a surprise to everyone but Madeleine Albright, who claimed that his resignation and his appointment of Putin as acting president did not come as a total surprise to her. It thus seems that the 'constitutional coup' brought about a 'Yeltsinism without Yeltsin', a surgical operation that aimed at prolonging the life of Yeltsinism, even if this entailed the removal of Yeltsin himself and the institution of measures against the corruption and nepotism that had gone beyond all limits in his immediate entourage.

It must be said that Yeltsin has adopted a style of democracy that is uniquely his own, observing the minimum requirements necessary to appease western sensibilities and stave off accusations of openly violating the rules of democracy in terms of form, while actually violating those rules in terms of substance. Thus foreign observers are authorised to supervise elections, but the basic law issued in 1993 to cover the scandal of Yeltsin's order to bombard Parliament when it became the stronghold of factions that opposed him allows the president to nominate the prime minister as acting president whenever the former is incapable of fulfilling his duties, without defining what exactly 'incapacity' means here.

Yeltsin also dreamt of a two party system with one left of centre party and one right of centre alternating in power. But his dream came up against the well organised communist Party led by Gennadi Zyuganov, which is Russia's biggest party, and a structured liberal party, Yabloko, headed by Grigori Yavlinski. Neither party is amenable to presidential manipulation. More recently, Yeltsin, with the help of Putin, organised the Unity party which brought together a number of forces operating in Russia's business community and gravitating around the presidency. In last December's parliamentary elections, this party came second only to the Communist Party. But with the popularity he now enjoys because of his uncompromising stand on the war in Chechnya, Putin has a majority of voices in parliament.

Putin is said to admire two American presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He dreams of some form of state capitalism by which he can stand up to the present corrupt parasitical capitalism that has thrived in Russia since the fall of communism. The problem is that even such an openly capitalist version of a command economy cannot compete with a globalised western liberal capitalism. Putin's bid to introduce some form of state capitalism is more likely to develop Russian chauvinism which could satisfy the widespread feeling of frustration brought about by the humiliating defeats Russia has suffered since the collapse of communism than to help reestablish its status as a superpower.

For a time after the implosion of the communist state in Russia, it appeared that the world had become unipolar. But it soon became clear that wide sections of the world community refused to succumb to American hegemony. The US administration itself was the first to warn of so-called rogue states that were standing up to the 'new world order' and becoming havens for the forces of terrorism. Putin is building his image as a determined adversary of terrorism in Chechnya. In this, he stands on the same side as the US. But he also wants to be the champion of nationalistic forces, mainly anchored in the Third World, which see globalisation as a threat to their national sovereignty. Is it in Putin's power to build a Russia that would oppose both poles of the 'new world order', the American pole and the terrorism pole, or is he faced with an impossible equation?

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