Vladimir Putin Turns 60

Putin has succeeded Yeltsin as a modern leader who renewed the old partocratic elites, becoming a fresh face in the Russian politics. Today he is becoming a representative of the older generation, which is not a tragedy in itself, as statecraft largely comes from experience.

Valdaiclub.com interview with members of the Valdai Discussion Club Timothy Colton , Feldberg Professor of Government at Harvard University and Director of Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Piotr Dutkiewicz , Professor of Political Science, Director of the Center for Governance and Public Policy at Carleton University, Ottawa, Clifford Kupchan , Director, Europe and Eurasia, Eurasia Group, Thomas Gomart , Director of the Russia/ Newly Independent States Centre at IFRI (French Institute of International Relations based in Paris and Brussels), Alexander Rahr , Senior Advisor Russia for Wintershall Holding, сonsultant for the President of the German-Russian Chamber of Foreign Commerce, and Richard Sakwa , Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent at Canterbury, an Associate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House.

What are, in your opinion, his main successes during these 60 years?

Timothy COLTON (TC): If you are speaking of the entire 60 years of his life so far, I would say the first would be his success at living a productive life during some of Russia’s most turbulent decades. If we are speaking of the last 13 years, during which he has been the main political leader of the country, his greatest achievement has been to help achieve a stability in which most Russians have been able to live normally. As one part of that stability, he has strengthened the Russian state, which also has its positive side.

Piotr DUTKIEWICZ (PD): In my mind there are two undisputable achievements. First is that Mr. Putin prevented further territorial disintegration of Russia and collapse of the Russian state; second is stopping pauperization of the most economically vulnerable social groups.

Thomas GOMART (TG): It’s an uneasy question, but I will focus on the political sphere instead of the private one. Vladimir Putin’s main success is his ability to be elected the President of Russia for two times; he is certainly a leader with a prominent standing in the Russian history. However, the question of whether the third presidency can be regarded as a success or an achievement is still open. The conditions under which the elections were held, especially the political opposition will be a political problem for him and for Russia for the next 6 years. My answer is that the first two elections were definite successes, but I wonder about the third one.

Clifford KUPCHAN (CK): President Putin’s main success in my view is insisting on a responsible macroeconomic policy, making sure that inflation stays in control. He also succeeded in restoring the power of the Russian state, which had atrophied.

Alexander RAHR (AR): Vladimir Putin will go down in history as a leader who stabilized Russia. In a couple of decades he will probably be compared to Charles de Gaulle in France or to Konrad Adenauer in Germany. He established a functioning economic and political system in Russia. Moreover, under his presidency the Russians started to live better than all of the previous generations.

However, he is now entering a turbulent period, as Russia under his rule has become completely different comparing to that of the 90s. He will have to learn how to become a leader of this new Russia, where people, mostly thanks to him, learned how to live like Europeans, how to consume like Europeans and how to travel like Europeans.

This new generation is a future of Russia, they have the grasp of freedom and democracy, but they also are a serious challenge for the conservative elites who believe that Russia shall be ruled as it was before. Thus, Putin’s main task would be to become the leader of the next generation, when Russia would embrace modernity.

Richard SAKWA (RS): To have emerged as a working lad from the back streets of Leningrad to the highest office in the land, and to have maintained himself in power for over a dozen years.

What are his main failures?

TC: His main failures are three. First, he achieved stability in part, though not entirely, at the expense of political freedom. Second, he has refused to leave the political scene at the right moment, which would have been no later than the conclusion of his second presidential term. This second failure breeds a third: the personalization of political authority in Russia, an outcome he used to say he intended to avoid.

PD: Vladimir Putin’s main failure so far is his inability to stop bureaucracy from becoming a "state within the state" and thus impeding national development.

TG: There are numerous, but that’s the case with every political leader, there are no Putin’s special ones. It depends on the point of view we choose, but I will name the three failures I consider the most important. The first one is his initiative to narrow politically the links to Europe at the beginning of his first term (2000-2003). Relations between Russia and Europe are disappointing; they deserve much more commitment from both sides. Surely, Putin is not the only one responsible for this; the other European leaders also share the responsibility for this. But given the ambitions of both parts and the full potential of bilateral relations, it can be considered as a failure.

The second failure is in the foreign policy. Russia’s leadership is very limited, which is paradoxical, because if we compare Russia’s positions in the world twelve years ago to its position today, the change for the better is obvious. At the same time the Russian foreign policy remain very reactive and its ability to be seen as a leader and to be a moving force in the international politics leave much to be desired.

The last, but not the least failure is in the political sphere. Putin is now appearing more and more deadlocked in his position and the power it grants. There are no preparations for his succession, which means a lot of uncertainty and instability for the Russian regime with him and after him. The best example of this issue is the backstage decision taken in September 2011. This is the main failure, it has been a provocation not for the “international community” but for the Russian people.

CK: The Putin-era so far has not brought enough progress on establishing the rule of law in Russia, in fighting corruption, or in advancing democratization.

AR: Putin deeply mistrusts liberal economic system, seeking a balance between state-dominant and liberal models. He believes that democracy and the rule of law have to be established from above rather that from the society.

During his third presidency he tends to return to the forms and mentality he acquired twelve years ago, sticking to more authoritarian methods, which were more apparent during his second term, instead of more liberal economic policy that was introduced in the beginning of his first term. Thus, a mixture of the first and second presidencies should be a basis for the third.

RS: His failure to articulate a positive and dynamic vision for Russia’s future. It now seems that the maintenance and exercise of power has become an end in itself. Whether he will be able to change it depends on his ability to overcome his fears, and accept others as his political equals, to start a genuine dialogue with society, and to offer positive ideas about how to overcome the negative dialectic in relations with the West.

Does the Russian political elite age with its leader? What is the rate of elite renewal? Is it possible that the gerontocratization looms over Russia’s politics?

TC: The recent legal change allowing certain officials to serve until age 70 points toward gerontocracy. Putin would be able to limit the effects of aging in the elite by finding younger lieutenants, which is what Yeltsin did in the 1990s – Putin himself was one of those up-and-comers. But this will be useless and even counterproductive if there is not renewal and modernization of ideas, too. That is what Medvedev was saying, at least, that he wanted to do, but we know what happened to Medvedev.

PD: The current "vertical of power" effectively blocks a natural process of inter-elite completion and cooptation of some new elements at the regional and national levels.

TG: The whole Russian population is aging, it is a basic fact which is very important both for the Russian and European future. For the Russian elites, however, it is not a problem of the age itself; it is more a problem of a mindset. It poses difficult questions for the Russian establishment – will it be able to undertake some sort of renewal, can it attract new people who will become new elites working for the public interests. At this stage I have some doubts, as the Russian establishment, along with other elites in other political systems, is more concerned with maintaining of it position rather than to attract new talents.

CK: There a number of young elites in the current Russian government; I don’t think the political elite necessarily “ages” as the President grows older. However, it will be important for Russia to bring more and more young elites into key decision-making roles.

AR: Putin has succeeded Yeltsin as a modern leader who renewed the old partocratic elites, becoming a fresh face in the Russian politics. Today he is becoming a representative of the older generation, which is not a tragedy in itself, as statecraft largely comes from experience.

However, the society has changed and the leadership of the country has to react to the challenges and opportunities that have arisen. If the political elite do not learn how to work and exist in this new political and social environment the country will stagnate and resemble Soviet Union of the 70s and 80s.

I don’t believe that it will be the case as Russia is a dynamic and fairly young country which goes forward and can drive others with it. Putin’s main task is now to adapt himself to the new agenda and the new Russia.

RS: The aging of the Putin cohort is a growing problem; but the fundamental issue is the nature of the elite and its relationship to society. A continuation of bureaucratic-personalistic rule in which solutions are given outside of an inclusive political process threatens to become a brittle, and thus fragile, form of rule.

Is Putin’s historical mission accomplished? What are his new goals?

TC: Historical missions are assigned by individuals to themselves, not by some remote force or Zeitgeist. Putin has said repeatedly that his biggest concern when he became president was that the country was falling apart. He says he took action to prevent that from happening – which made it strange to hear him saying over the past year that he needed to become president again so as . . . to keep the country from falling apart. I don’t see any new goals, only the old goals with more heavy-handed methods. I am not saying Vladimir Putin is absolutely incapable at age 60 of revising his goals – Boris Yeltsin was 59 when he exited the Communist Party. But the chances of that happening shrink with every passing month, in which case the outlook for Russia in the coming years is of a period of stagnation. If this is what lies ahead, his historical reputation will be damaged and perhaps ruined altogether.

PD: If Russia will survive for the next three-four years without the economic crises like these happening in the EU and US, that will be enormous achievement at the global scale.

TG: It depends on your definition of a “historical mission.” In any respect, he succeeded in reestablishing Russia on the international scene and he stopped the country’s decline in the 90s. But now his main new goal would be to understand the evolution of his own people. The fact is that there is a big share of the Russian middle class who wants not only political and economic stability, but to be seen as a real political actor. His main challenge is now in fact his own compatriots, and given his mindset, dealing with them will be tricky and difficult.

CK: It is early in President Putin’s third term as President. We don’t know yet how he views his historical mission. Major new goals have not yet been elaborated, but again, it’s early in his term.

AR: Putin had the chance to step down and relinquish his presidency to Medvedev. If he had done this he would have already gone down in history as a great leader who stabilized the country and put forward economic reforms changing Russia for the better. But he decided to stay in power for at least 6 years taking responsibility to what will happen to Russia later on. Thus, his task is not accomplished; he had himself chosen not to finish his political life and to take on new challenges.

This situation provokes a lot of risks; he has to play the game with new rules and new players.

RS: This is a fundamental question: even the greatest of leaders should know when to go; unless they can reformulate their ‘historical mission’ to meet evolving challenges. As of his new goals – I wish he would tell us!

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.