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Putin: the first year

OSW Studies

A year has passed since Vladimir Putin was sworn in as President of the Russian Federation on 7 May 2000, five months after taking over the duties of head of state from Boris Yeltsin. This prompts our attempt at a certain summing-up of the changes which have been made in Russia under the new leader's government.

The text ·Putin; the first year· draws a picture of the reforms introduced by the Russian authorities during that year, and also highlights those reformist actions declared earlier which were either implemented with some little delay or have not been started at all so far. This evaluation also concerns the way the reforms have been introduced. A basis is thus laid for a wider examination of the main trends in the changes which have taken place in Russia over the period discussed, and which are the result as much of the reforms announced as of the other activities of government and processes taking place within the state.


1. The group currently ruling Russia apparently does not possess any unified and all-encompassing strategy for the country's further development. This team is internally divided, and its ideas for state policy also differ. President Putin has no clearly defined economic views. He has in general avoided taking any unambiguous position on controversial issues. The Russian leader has attempted to reconcile the task of modernising Russia with the task of mobilising society. The imperative for him has been to ensure economic growth, but also not to destabilise the social situation. Putin did not want to support any such reformist actions which might, on however temporary a basis, bring in their wake a fall in living standards, and at same time might pose a threat to his considerable popularity.

2. Kremlin policy has been directed above all towards strengthening the president's authority and expanding his instruments of control over the situation in the country. The President has limited the influence on policy of those alternative institutions which hindered his authority in the state: the parliamentary opposition, the regional leaders, the representatives of big business and the oppositionist media. Vladimir Putin has strengthened his real authority, but he still has his limitations: the government must at some point reach a compromise with parliament; the Kremlin still has limited control over situation in the regions; some oligarchs remain close to the government; the Kremlin has not yet achieved full political control over the media; informal groups in the central aparatus have influence on the president, growing in power security structures and numerous lobbies, and the president needs to maintain his high level of public support.

3. The government has conducted certain important reforms in the administrative and fiscal spheres. However fundamental economic structural reforms, key social reforms and relevant changes in the spheres of security and justice administration have still not been initiated. Next to objective difficulties (the complexity of the process itself, and the difficulties of changing the status quo) and the disunity of the government aparatus, the essential cause of such a state of affairs is the lack of political will on the part of the main decision-makers (with President Putin at their head), as well as the President's specific techniques for exercising authority.

4. To an ever greater degree, the democratic system in Russia is becoming more and more purely formal. For the time being the Kremlin is avoiding constitutional changes, but is creating mechanisms and institutions which de facto violate its decision, which hampers the implementation of bases of political pluralism, freedom of speech and the rule of law. Even more threatening for democracy in Russia are the changes in the mental sphere, which can be dealt with only with difficulty. State propaganda tries to conceal any phenomena which violate the president's positive image, or weakens consolidation of the public attitude towards government policy. This engenders a feeling of threat from an external enemy, foments a spy mania, and strengthens distrust and dislike towards the western world. Instead of an open society, the government is instead endeavouring to build a 'counter-espionage society'. The creation of a 'political and moral unity' of society is served by the government taking full control of the national electronic media, and by forming a party system which excludes an 'unconstructive' opposition.

5. President Putin's specific techniques for exercising authority have hitherto been based on avoiding taking any decisions which are radical, unpopular or which cause painful social results. The President has thus tried to maintain his image as an arbiter standing above divisions, full of solicitude for the problems which perturb the citizens. Among the Kremlin's activities positive incentives (persuasion, encouragement, bribery, guarantees of security) have in fact prevailed, rather than negative incentives (fear, blackmail, methods of administrative force) - but both kinds have been used. Any changes carried out recently in Russia have had an evolutionary and not revolutionary character. President Putin is very cautious in carrying out changes; he does so when it is absolutely necessary and is accompanied by a low risk of failure.

6. The President has carried out a personnel policy based on a system of balancing influences between various groups. However the personnel decisions which the President took in April 2001 (principally concerning the so-called force departments), and also his subsequent proclamation to the Federal Assembly, testify to a scenario of gradual weakening of the old Yeltsin team's influence by a simultaneous strengthening of the positions of the 'Petersburg group' and the 'liberals'. It is possible that in the short term (within the framework of the 'restructuring of government' announced in May 2001, and the expected change in the presidential administration), modifications will appear in the balance of power within the governing elite by the creation of a unified 'team', which would be mainly based (as regards personnel) on the so-called Petersburg group (with a simultaneous weakening of the influence of the 'Family'). The President's problem is however the meagreness of an appropriate personnel base. The direction and depth of these changes is still an open question. It seems possible that in such a situation an acceleration of reforms would follow, an acceleration hitherto partially hindered as a result of internal divisions within the government aparatus). This depends mainly on whether the role of the 'liberals' would grow in the new balance of power. If this happened, the chances would grow of an acceleration in the reforms, and for maintaining balanced growth under the cover of strong presidential government.

7. The Kremlin wishes to give itself the most room for political and economic manoeuvre. With the help of certain instruments of government, it would like to be able (if necessary) to carry out deep changes in a liberal spirit, or to maintain the socio-economic system in fundamentally unchanged form. This is accompanied by an endeavour to strengthen state control over socio-political life. Any further deferral of concrete moves in the social and economic spheres - despite the convenient situation created by good economic conditions and high public support for the president - may however mean a wasted chance for modernisation and long-lasting growth. The probability of such a sequence of events would grow notably if the current favourable economic circumstances (maintained in large part thanks to high world prices for crude oil) was broken. In this situation, the government will begin to concentrate on the defence of its security in the face of growing social tensions, which may bring about a considerable growth in authoritarianism.

8. Since April 2001 we have seen a growth in the authorities' political activity, especially in the sphere of socio-economic reforms. However, doubts still exist as to whether the president and his immediate circle of advisers have sufficient political will to break with a policy of seeking compromise in favour of accelerating liberal reforms. Furthermore, it is doubtful whether in the longer term it would be possible to reconcile authoritarian tendencies in policy with liberal tendencies in the economy.

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