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Putin's Dilemma: Can Bureaucrats Be Trusted?

August 06, 2000|Gregory Freidin | Gregory Freidin, chairman of the Slavic languages and literature department at Stanford University, is co-author of "Russia at the Barricades: Eyewitness Accounts of the August 1991 Coup."

STANFORD — In 1953, after an anti-Stalinist uprising was brutally put down in East Berlin, Bertolt Brecht reportedly remarked that since the East German government was dissatisfied with the nation, it should dissolve the German people and call in a new nation. A joke making the rounds in Moscow these days echoes Brecht's humor. It goes like this:

"What went wrong with Russia's last democratic election?"

"Everything. It's not the people who should have been electing a new president, but the president electing a different people."

President Vladimir V. Putin knows this sentiment well as he watches how government officials charged with strengthening the rule of law and creating a positive climate for foreign investment are instead reviving the specter of arbitrary repression, Soviet style. In the eyes of the country's opinion makers, the "dictatorship of law" that Putin promised to establish in place of former President Boris N. Yeltsin's era of permissiveness, influence-peddling and corruption seems to be succumbing to the law of dictatorship: questionable charges against the independent media empire of Vladimir A. Gusinsky and similar, if less spectacular, proceedings against other representatives of Russia's big business.

What does Putin actually stand for: maximizing the power of the state or safeguarding the freedom of Russian society? In an Izvestia interview last month, when asked if he was worried that the heavy-handed tactics of government prosecutors squash what little Russia has of a civil society, Putin said: "We have the people that we have, we have the economy that we have and we have the state officials that we have." In other words, because reforms are implemented by officials burdened with the habits and the institutional memory of the old regime, the risk of failure of the entire reform effort is clear. It is here--in Putin's recognition of the inadequacies of the state and society for the radical reform agenda--that we should look for the key to the president's ambiguous political persona.

Putin sees change toward a modern civil society and market economy as inevitable. He is convinced that reforms must be carried out if the Russian Federation is to stem confederate tendencies, if it is to create a positive climate for business and economic growth and if it is to replace the crooked bureaucracy with one that "defends the citizens' dignity, freedom, security, making it possible for people to earn a living." His legislative agenda for the Duma, some of it already enacted, shows that he means what he says. But his hesitation in criticizing overzealous prosecutors suggests he is reluctant to take sides for fear of alienating state officials without whom the reform process would surely grind to a halt.

In this regard, Putin is radically different from his predecessor. Yeltsin treated the bureaucracy he inherited from communism with suspicion and disdain. Tolerating it as a necessary evil, he sought legitimacy by fomenting a "cold" civil war between holdovers from the past, who held the government strings, and reform forces, which had not yet had the opportunity to learn governance but were more than adequately represented in the new Russian press. To maintain his position as final arbiter, Yeltsin habitually transferred state assets into the hands of quick-witted and powerful businessmen while diminishing the federal power by ceding it to increasingly independent political elites in the regions. The newly empowered businessmen were then allowed to cut deals with the weakened bureaucracy.

Putin's own game becomes less opaque when juxtaposed with the policies of Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Unlike Yeltsin, Gorbachev tried to use the levers of the Communist Party state both to bring about radical change and to hold together the Soviet empire. While diminishing the party's grip on power and loosening imperial bonds, Gorbachev's method created opportunities for more flexible and intelligent servants of the party-state to be the first to profit from change. With a few notable exceptions, the apparatchiks proved incapable of adapting to the new environment. In August 1991, as they realized they were digging their own graves under Gorbachev's stewardship, their leaders staged a putsch. The rebellion quickly fizzled, but it lasted long enough to demonstrate that Gorbachev's party-based mandate, based solely on his position in the party, had expired.

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