Russia Between 1999 and 2008 Part III

By | February 26, 2022

The pragmatism shown by Putin in domestic politics was accompanied by a strong realism in foreign policy, more commensurate with the possibilities and limits of Russia. Putin followed the compass of national interests in a much more linear way than his predecessor and, in particular, established strong economic and commercial relations with the European Union, taking note of its enlargement to the East. At the same time, he did not give up on claiming a role of great power of the Russia, essential basis of the national consensus he collected, without binding the country to any preferential axis. After the terrorist attack of 11 September 2001 in New York and Washington, Putin led Russia to forge a new strategic partnership with the West in the name of the fight against terrorism. But this move soon revealed its predominantly instrumental character: legitimizing the politics of force in Chechnya. Realism in foreign policy was therefore not without a plan: to save what could be saved from Russian power, focusing on the future prospect of a multipolar world. In this light, it is necessary to evaluate the Russian opposition to the American unilateral war in Irāq. But the project of multipolarity seemed to mark the limit of the possible alliances of the Russia towards the West as a whole, and rather produce an approach to China and India. In Putin’s vision, in fact, that project implied the rejection of any universalistic notion of democracy and a claim of legitimacy for the politico-cultural diversity and for the ‘national’ variants of democracy, starting with the Russian semi-authoritarian one. In this respect, Putin’s attitude towards the ‘Orange Revolution’ in Ukraine was significant (2004): an event viewed with suspicion, as a consequence of the penetration into the former Soviet space of Western models different from the Russian tradition.

In March 2004, Putin was re-elected president with a genuine national plebiscite, reaching over 70 % of the votes. His re-election crowned the birth of the ‘controlled democracy’ regime. The consensus that sustained Putin’s power showed no real signs of wear and tear: the stability obtained with an iron fist continued to have popular support, despite the senselessness of the Chechen war; after the collapse of the ruble in 1998, the economic recovery was a real fact, fueled by the significant increase in the price of oil; the abysmal social inequalities, that is the polarization between an elite rich by the highest world standards and a quarter of the population below the poverty line, they had no political consequences; the national-patriotic rhetoric of Russian prestige continued to be successful, and on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the victory in World War II (May 2005) did not even stop before Stalin’s revaluation. Several times, in his speeches to the nation, Putin explicitly indicated the link between centralization of power and modernization of the economy as the central element of his political action. The evolution of Russian internal politics had consolidated the regime in its most authoritarian aspects, increasingly limiting the spaces for debate and criticism in public opinion. In this climate, the assassination in October 2006 from the journalist A. Politkovskaya, one of the bravest voices to denounce the tragedies of the Chechen war, a disturbing signal appeared to many observers. At the same time, the Kremlin’s willingness to exercise unconditional power in the country’s political, economic and financial life, affirmed through the struggle against the oligarchs, revealed implications that did not concern only domestic politics. During his second term, Putin’s tendency emerged to use energy wealth as a weapon of Russian foreign policy, especially aimed at conditioning the states of the former Soviet Union. Statist control over energy was therefore both a central element of power and a tool for relaunching Russia’s power politics.

According to aceinland, the outcome of the Putin presidency is to have offered, according to all evidence, a solution different from that of his predecessors, abandoning the attempt to combine the introduction of the market with a radical democratic reform of the political system. In this sense, his time had closed a phase of Russian history that had been opened by Gorbachev. Market authoritarianism and the affirmation of the prestige of the State presented themselves as the ingredients of an evolution of the Russia now conducted in a different key from that of Westernization. The current Constitution does not allow Putin to be elected for a third term in the presidential elections, which are scheduled for March 2008., however, reserving to himself the faculty to choose his successor and following together a largely autocratic style and a practice of modern manipulation of democracy.

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