As one of the most important actors on the geopolitical chess board I’m dying to better understand Putin and his Russia: Should he be feared and contained or, as some pundits argue, is he in fact our natural ally? The ‘preeminent’ historian Laqueur has a deep understanding of Russian history and its complexity as he demonstrates throughout his book, in which he paints the mood of the country with the help of writers, philosophers, scientist and philosophers.
Laqueur’s conclusion on Putin is clear: he embodies a new phase in Russian politics. After the demise of the communist party, for the first time (globally) the political police moved to the fore. Yeltsin’s ruled favored the very richest in leadership positions, in other countries generals were in power, but never had it been the secret service people. The KGB has become the new nobility. The so-called silovki‘s are the new rulers. Trying to define Putinism in one sentence one could say that it’s an authoritarian regime, representing the interests of several groups in Russian society. It’s a dictatorship approved by the majority, as long as the going is good.
So how does Putin ensure the support his people? Putin’s success rests mainly on two factors:
1- steeply rising demand for oil and gas and, correspondingly, a striking improvement in Russia’s finances;
2- the unfortunate character of the transition from communism to some new form or rule based on a market economy. In this chaos Putin was able to strengthen the authority and the power of the state, with a patriotic, aggressive, foreign policy aimed at restoring what has been lost. Of course, the Russian Orthodox Church remains one of the pillars of this new Russia.
It’s harder to understand what this new “empire” should look like. Laqueur sees Eurasianism as the single most important component of the new Russian doctrine. A grand vision of an European Empire stretching form Dublin to Vladivostok. Against America and of course led by Russia. In current times this seems as a ferry tale but this thinking wasn’t limited to the political fringes in the 1990’s, when there was talking about trying to integrate Russia into Europe.
We shouldn’t be too naive in hoping that Russia will become a democracy, akin the ones we’ve built in the West. For one, most Russians have come to believe that democracy is what happened in their country between 1990 and 2000 and they do not want any more of it. It meant chaos and anarchy (and oil and gas prices only rose after those two decades, strengthening the impression that Putinism was needed for economic recovery). Actually there was never democracy in Russia, except perhaps for a few moths in 1917. There is a deep-seated distrust and aversion towards democracy, and for that matter, everything coming from abroad. It is commonly accepted that Russia is a besieged fortress. And always has been. The last two decades have shown that chaos is much more feared that authoritarian rule or dictatorship.
As everyone knows who has spent only a couple of days in Russia, conspiracy thinking falls into fertile ground. For instance, the protocols of the elders of Zion are a returning element in conspiracy thinking of Russian, as is their belief in a hidden hand and evil forces that manipulate Russian society (especially popular is the idea of a European conspiracy to destroy Russia ). Following such a reasoning, a Putin type, stronger and younger that all his predecessors, seems a logical ‘choice’.
Russia is now at the zenith of its power, but it will probably wither in the coming decades, as it faces some serious challenges:
- Who will be its allies? It can’t count on Europe, nor the US. And the notion of a Russian Empire is not widely shared; contrary to what numerous Russians believe, the Russian empire had not existed for millennia. Many acquisition are of relatively recent date: Crimea 1783, Georgia 1814, Azerbaijan 1813 etc.
- Demography: with relatively few people (caused by war, mass murder, alcoholism, low fertility rate) on a very dense area, how to fulfill its ambition of a great power? How to enforce its claim on the entirety of the territory?
- Radical Islam: there are around 20 million Muslims in Russia; radical Islam has been spreading and becoming more acute
- China: where in 1993 the economy of both countries were about equal, China’s is now 4 times bigger. What will this changing relationship mean?
- All depends on the price of oil and gas. Russia will only be able to pay the price for its imperial ambitions if its economy flourishes.
- The After-Putin: the young generation admires Putin but has no sympathy for politicians. There is no interest in civil society.
Russia is highly complex country, its culture and its leaders are often enigmas. Laqueur made a great effort to give the new Russia an adequate tag: Putinism is above all a system, a way of thinking, more than it describes the leadership of the individual Vladimir Putin.