Conservative Putin in unpredictable environment
Vladimir Putin is back. Monday, May 7th, he once again takes the oath of president of Russia. After his third term as president, Putin will be 65, and he will have been in power for almost 19 years.
Since the beginning in August 1999, the core of Putin’s views has hardly changed. He can be classified as moderately conservative. The president-elect does not consider a return to the Soviet system as either possible or desirable, though he freely employs Soviet nostalgia in his rhetoric.
In general, up to now his power has rested on a coalition of mainstream liberals who have had economic policy in their grip practically since the start of the 1990s and former officials from security agencies who considerably expanded their influence in the 2000s.
While this coalition eventually produced a form of Russian state capitalism with tough fiscal policy and good macroeconomic indicators, it was largely monopolized and unable to produce effective innovations.
Putin believes Russia has not yet recovered from the collapse of the 1990s and, therefore, it is not fully ready for a pluralistic democracy. He insists that “manual control” must continue in Russia until the country becomes sufficiently mature both civilly and politically.
Meeting with a group of political analysts in February, Putin said that he and his team had managed to restore the framework of the state, but it was still in need of completing construction work. A few more years of gradual development and stability, then let us open up and liberalize, but not immediately. Russian conservatives have said that throughout Russian history, but they never received the time demanded…
Putin and his generation remember well Gorbachev’s “Perestroika” – how the enormous hopes and best intentions of the time quickly gave way to complete disintegration. The caution and sobriety instilled by such experience are helpful, but they also dramatically reduce one’s capacity for bold action, which is a quality every major politician must possess.
Putin’s conservatism is also reflected in his foreign policy. For all his tough talk, he is generally cautious and responsive. Putin sees the world around him as extremely dangerous, unpredictable and chaotic; and so he is prone to measure thrice and cut once. He has an idea of Russia’s rightful place in the world and is ready to take part in a new “great game” to secure it, but he knows what lines he should not cross.
According to Putin, Russia must remain a global power acting across the entire field. This distinguishes his approach from that which took shape under President Dmitry Medvedev: toward the pursuit of immediate and geographically close, albeit vast, interests.
Importantly, activity all around the world, that is, a global status, is required not for expansion but for the maintenance of the status quo. In this context Putin sees Russia not just as a consistent US opponent, as many believe he does, but as a guarantor of a classical system of views and relations that, in his opinion, is shared by the BRICS countries. This system is based on the primacy of strategic independence, the inviolability of sovereignty and a balance of forces.
Putin does not doubt that Russia is an object of permanent and mostly unfriendly influence – from military challenges (such as missile defense, other high-tech improvements and NATO’s expansion) to attempts to impose other forms of social arrangement on it by way of media campaigns and “illegal instruments of soft power.”
The world as a whole is being perceived as a highly risky and hostile environment. Reliance on force – solid force – is the only path to success.
For all that, Putin views Russia as an open country that is ready for economic cooperation with all countries; as a country that is not seeking isolation and is not trying to build even a semblance of autarky in the economy.
In general, Putin is interested in big business and its promotion, strategic alliances of large companies and major deals as an instrument of political rapprochement.
Russia and its policy are strongly, almost fatally, dependent on a host of external factors that are beyond Moscow’s control. Russia faces numerous problems, one of which is conceptual in nature – the search for a political model to replace the one that worked relatively well in the 2000s, but has been exhausted for objective reasons.
This depends on the Russian leaders who will make decisions. And that challenges Putin’s genuine conservatism which, in this non-linear situation, might be both useful and damaging.
Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor–in–Chief of Russia in Global Affairs magazine (since 2002), member of the Valdai Discussion Club.
This article was originally published in Russia Today.