Russia Between 1999 and 2008 Part I

By | February 24, 2022

In the second decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the post-Soviet Republic had definitively turned its back on the Communist past. Its transformation had taken place without a genuine revolution and a replacement of the ruling classes, but it nevertheless appeared irreversible. There had been a decisive shift to the market economy and private property. No political force was proposing a return to the Soviet system, and nostalgics had been sidelined. After the serious fluctuations of the first period of B. El´cin, the notion and practice of representative democracy was accepted by all. The Russia claimed its state continuity with the USSR, but it was a country integrated into the economic system and international institutions. The size of the superpower was now liquidated, and the military-industrial complex with it. Still, it was not difficult to see the signs of a ‘past that does not pass’. Far more than a gradual transition from communism to capitalism, from totalitarianism to democracy, from empire to nation-state, there seemed to be a difficult and ambiguous recovery after the Soviet collapse, with paths still uncertain and indefinable. The personalization of power, the distance between rulers and the governed, the weakness of institutions, the vast corruption of public life, imperial nostalgia, the very difficulty of defining a national identity, were all aspects that prevented a clear answer to the prospects. of the future. The most evident sign of this persistence of the past is constituted by the fact that in order to reconstruct the essential lines of

On December 31, 1999, El´cin announced his resignation from the presidency of the Russian Federation. His successor had already been designated. In the general surprise, a few months earlier El´cin had appointed the unknown V. Putin, not yet fifty years old, head of the government since 1996 as head of the Federal Security Service (the heir organization of the KGB). In a short span of time this outsider had won considerable popular support, especially for the determination with which he had resumed military operations in Chechnya (Sept.-Oct. 1999). His improvised party, Edinstvo (Unity), had achieved a good result (23.3% of votes) in the elections to the Duma (December 1999), favoring for the first time the birth of an anti-communist parliamentary majority. With Yel´cin’s retirement, Putin was able to present himself in the presidential elections of March 2000 as by far the most authoritative candidate, also because as prime minister he was entitled to the transitional functions of president. His success in the first round was triumphal (53% of votes). The figure of Putin, completely unknown until recently, was identified with the birth of a plebiscitary type of consensus in the post-Soviet Republic. However, the reasons for this consensus are much more to be found in society and institutions than in Putin’s personality. The only significant aspect of his dark biography was his membership in the KGB, the strongest apparatus of the late Soviet power which had expressed less than twenty years earlier a general secretary of the CPSU, Ju. Andropov. The figure of the latter would have been recalled in the following years in order to indicate a political precedent of Putin. His career began at a very young age and he could boast a long tenure in East Germany, from which he was repatriated after the fall of the Berlin Wall in1989. His perception of perestroika by M. Gorbačëv had therefore been distant and limited, while the sense of the catastrophe of the Soviet bloc and of the USSR itself was decidedly more acute. At the time of his appearance on the scene, the new president expressed neither a clear political project nor a personal profile capable of impressing observers, positively or not. What, fundamentally, took hold on Russian opinion was his image as a ‘strong man’, able to curb the spread of corruption and mafias in public life, to use an iron fist against terrorism born out of the question. Chechen, to return to Russia an active role in foreign policy, especially in the geopolitical space of the former USSR. His inauguration speech centered on the idea of ​​restoring the prestige of the state and bringing order to society. A program to which he had to keep faith, but also vague and such as to lend itself to the most diverse interpretations.

According to countryvv, Putin’s first moves in domestic politics were aimed at distinguishing his own image from that, now faded and unpopular, of Yel´cin, on the basis of the immediately announced project of restoring law and order, authority and security. In reality, Putin acted as a strenuous centralizer of the state: a characteristic that met with consensus in the most dynamic sectors of Russian society, interested in stabilization after the chaotic transition to the free market of the previous decade, but which was also favored by the passivity of citizens and by the scarce democratic sensitivity still prevailing in the country’s political culture, starting with its ruling classes. This centralizing practice and will had to assert itself over the years as the most typical trait of Putin’s action. The presidency as a strong power of the post-Soviet Republic, both vis-à-vis the government and the parliament, had been established by Yel´cin and sanctioned by the Constitution: but much more than his predecessor, Putin had to make the constitution correspond to reality. He immediately implemented an administrative reform aimed at severely limiting autonomy, introducing a new ring of territorial bureaucracies, the federal districts, which followed the district organization of the armed forces. He gradually inserted trusted men into key posts of state power, according to a consolidated tradition, but which were characterized above all by their belonging to a strong institution, the Federal Security Service. He placed the Federation Council under presidential control, disrupting the local power lobbies that made it up. He launched his fight against the economic potentates who had aggregated in the time of Yel´cin: the first victims were the financiers B. Berezovskij and V. Gusinskij, owner of NTV television. Both under investigation, they fled abroad in the summer 2000. Soon it would be the turn of other ‘oligarchs’, guilty of illicit enrichment, and also inconvenient for their political influence. A sensational case was that of M. Chodorkovskij, magnate of the Jukos oil company. Arrested in October 2003, he was sentenced in May 2005 and then sent to forced labor in Siberia: a persistence difficult to explain except for political reasons. A new page was emerging in the conflict between autocracy and oligarchies in Russia.

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