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Putin Wears a President's Clothes, but He's Really an Ersatz Czar

October 01, 2003|Nina L. Khrushcheva | Nina L. Khrushcheva teaches international affairs at New School University.

In the dozen years since the Soviet Union collapsed, almost everything about Russia has changed. Where once there was only the Communist Party, 100 political parties and factions now fight for influence in the Kremlin; instead of a general secretary chosen via Leninist legality, Russia has had two duly elected presidents, Boris N. Yeltsin and Vladimir V. Putin. Politburo and Supreme Soviet are consigned to history's dustbin; today's Russia has its raucous Duma. The planned economy was replaced by markets. Russia even has its own Little League team, which accompanied Putin to New York last week.

A new Russia needs a new model president, which is what Putin has sought to unveil in the U.S. His presentation of Russia's position on Iraq at the United Nations and his cordial meetings with President Bush at Camp David were the sort of polished political performances everyone now expects from the ex-KGB-man-turned-president.

Although at times Bush and Putin voiced strong differences -- on Iraq's future, nuclear Iran, stubborn North Korea, the bloodshed in Chechnya -- everything about their talks was friendly, far warmer than Bush's meetings with French President Jacques Chirac.

But scratch beneath the surface of Putin and his regime and the old Russia emerges: bombastic, incoherent, puffed up with its own virtues and ignorant of its flaws. At least 25% of Putin's senior administration is made up of former KGB officers. All the media outlets left standing speak in the familiar obsequious voice of the Pravda days.

There are many other examples that show that, despite the face seen in the West, Putin is in reality much more akin to the old model of czar/father. Putin views himself much the same as Alexander I saw himself: a leader with a firm hand benevolently saving the country -- this time from the consequences of the Soviet collapse, post-Soviet anarchy and, in his own words, the "renaissance of freedom."

Putin (or his advisors) framed his U.S. trip as a moment to proclaim Russia's uniqueness and its embrace of the West. With Russia now part of the Western family, goodwill was evident from the start. But remember that goodwill run amok also marked Nikita Khrushchev's "communism with a human face" message to President Eisenhower in 1959. Those good feelings barely lasted the visit.

But Putin, a more disciplined character than my grandfather ever was, kept to his "Western" script the entire time. He posed with the Little League Russian baseball team. He opened the first U.S. gas station of Russian oil giant Lukoil. Imagine Chirac opening a French restaurant or Tony Blair a branch of Harrods on a visit to the U.S. You can't. They don't have to campaign to show how Western they are. Khrushchev, on the other hand, had to put on the same sort of dog-and-pony show in 1959, when he plucked a few ears of corn at Roswell Garst's mechanized Iowa farm.

History tells us that parading as a Westerner and being a Western politician are not the same thing. This was clearly demonstrated during Putin's lecture Thursday at Columbia University.

His presentation was solid, albeit somewhat boring and Soviet. He discussed the lingering Sovietology in American academia that spoils perceptions about Russia in the U.S. But after that dull performance, one worthy of the Politburo's nodding heads, Putin engaged in a question-and-answer session worthy of Bill Clinton. Putin directly addressed the audience's criticism of Russian policies, appearing honest and concerned. He felt the audience's pain and -- a la Clinton -- sought to soothe it. His toughness in cracking down on irresponsible freedoms, the media and Chechnya was clarified.

He would like nothing better than to be a liberal democrat, Putin implied; it's just the circumstances are not good enough -- no law, lack of order, oligarchy, irresponsible press, Chechen guerrillas, world terrorism.

This pose has a good pedigree in Russia. Ivan the Terrible, once accused of cruelty by his European counterparts, responded, "You are lucky with your people, but look at mine, such rotten citizens."

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