Aleksey Kurtov: “A desire to be the best president of all times and peoples does Putin a disservice”
The president of the Russian Association of Political Consultants about the 20th anniversary of “Putin’s Russia”. Part 1
Almost nearly 20 years ago, on 9 August 1999, Russia learnt who would govern it not only in the short but also in the long run, as it turned out later: then-president of the country Boris Yeltsin appointed Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) 47-year-old Vladimir Putin as head of the Russian government and announced that he saw him as his successor. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, President of the Russian Association of Political Consultants Aleksey Kurtov explains why Putin’s two first presidential terms can be considered really successful.
“Putin now has a kind of hybrid, semi-tsarist state”
Mr Kurtov, enough people have been ready to call Vladimir Putin even as an autocrat tsar in the 20 years of his presence at the summit of Russian power. And, to tell the truth, this isn’t so much fun but sad. Do you think Putin is a tsar or not?
Both he is and he isn’t. Anyway, such things as inherited power, being chosen by God, the absence of any doubt of being chosen by God always clearly distinguish inherited power from power one gets. But signs of tsarist power like the concentration of a big number of public resources — political, financial, information resources — and almost a unanimous solution of any important state problems really make Russia look like an inherited regime, not democratic. This is why Putin now has a kind of hybrid state.
Is the semi-autocracy merit of President Putin himself or is it still the merit of the Russians themselves who got tired of numerous economic and political problems by the late 90s and requested an exclusively strong arm at the top of the country and diligently bred it after getting it?
Like in any interaction, here one should look at both sides’ actions. Both Putin with his team and the Russians went towards each other to give a hug understanding that they need each other. Especially it referred to his first two terms. Because as a public worker in 2000-2008, Putin performed his task in front of the people getting a high mark — the state needed him to finish the war in Chechnya, stop political separatism (as you remember, there had been talks about the creation of the Far Eastern Republic and the Siberian Republic since the late 90s, and national regions considered they had foundation to be independent), stop the dissolution of the economy, gaps in international politics, and the performance of these tasks was completely Putin’s merit. Moreover, (this is why the people loved the president too), during Putin’s first term, in 2000-2004, quite a big number of liberal laws were adopted: taxes reduced, the law on flat personal income tax rate was adopted, the inspection system of businesses was liberalised, big opportunities to start a business appeared. In this respect, liberality was maximal and clear, and people liked it, as many of them understood that they could have their own business in Russia.
Signs of tsarist power like the concentration of a big number of public resources — political, financial, information resources — and almost a unanimous solution of any important state problems really make Russia look like an inherited regime, not democratic. This is why Putin now has a kind of hybrid state
In addition, Putin cared about the development of territories. Remember the year 2000 when Roman Abramovich became the governor of Chukotka: previously all money pumped in used to disappear no matter how much, and here the ruler of the territory with much money and additionally burdened with commitments personally in front of Putin appeared, and the territory bounced back. We can also remember the country’s national debt here, which stopped being a big problem, the face of armed forces changed.
Everything I have enumerated was very important needs people needed, and people “went towards” Putin because he really solved their both economic problems and performed state tasks that were closed to them. By the way, the centralisation of power Putin is now criticised for was to the good of the country because each and every was obliged to carry out the president’s decision, which solved many problems in regions.
But soon these advantages began to generate disadvantages too.
“The president’s team switched to a socialistic way of public property management”
As a military trained by the old Soviet system, Putin has always been very responsible for what he does. His understanding of Russia and high responsibility in front of it did such a service that the country’s development began to get complicated. And after Putin became the premier, he also kept taking on everything as he used to do but he lacked a team for a full-fledged work on transformations. And due to this, he shifted into trust management of the country instead of breeding new people for such a job. The political spectrum shrank in Russia because of it: Putin started to trust politicians less, he began to have much less confidence in some liberal moods in society. Besides, the spectrum of confidence in people who were responsible for the economy reduced, and now we see that Putin’s trusted confidant are responsible for big economic areas, everything that provides fast production and transformation into money — oil, gas, metals, processing. But the presence of trusted confidants only isn’t enough for the economy’s full-fledged development.
And perhaps the fact that impressive prices for oil in the noughties relaxed Putin’s team is also the cause of the same stagnation in the economy?
Of course, oil prices grew until 2008 in leaps and bounds, it was an unexpected gift, and he excluded all the necessity to learn how to work in tough economic conditions. The oil prices allowed Putin’s team to make mistakes in some decisions, but because of these decisions conclusions weren’t drawn, all the mistakes were absorbed by an inflow of money. All this ruined possibilities of economic thinking, the president’s team switched to a socialistic way of public property management, that’s to say, distribution appeared, instructions, financial obligations and so on were given, and the liberalisation of the economy didn’t go further.
Oil prices grew until 2008 in leaps and bounds, it was an unexpected gift, and he excluded all the necessity to learn how to work in tough economic conditions
Can a big amount of authority in the country’s management Putin gave to people who come from special service be the cause of the political and economic stagnation?
It is hard to answer clearly here. Of course, I am familiar with high-ranking people in the same FSB system, and it was quite gifted people in the early noughties — the qualification and staff selection systems were good enough.
Anyway, the FSB isn’t the case. I think different management groups are encapsulated in Putin’s team, for instance, the group of security agencies has already been encapsulated, and the non-admission of people who have some views on the economy and politics into this capsule is a real problem. If liberals were encapsulated in power and didn’t allow anybody in, it would also be a real problem. The problem of mistrust and unwillingness to open their world to change it with a desire to control everything is what is plain to see.
“They are absolutely convinced that they can handle any economic situation”
Can serious economic hardships open up these capsules to launch reforms that businesses, the state, citizens need?
I don’t think so. That group of rulers at the top of the country now are absolutely convinced that they can handle any economic situation. They say like: “Look, we handled the situation after the 90s when there wasn’t money but huge debts in the country”. They think that they have enough tools to cope with complicated situation, and they put an example of the world economic crisis in 2008 as evidence of their beliefs: Europe severely suffered from it, the USA did a lot, while we in Russia got out of the crisis because we managed to accumulate a good amount of free money.
The situation now is similar — public money is accumulated. Instead of developing technologies, education, we decided to save money for a rainy day, and it is a problem.
Let’s go back to the topic Putin and People. Has Putin’s attitude to people he met halfway and who met him halfway in 2000-2008 changed suddenly? He said in 2003 that people’s poverty was the main problem of the country, now poverty is also topical, but he isn’t talking about it so loudly and clearly. Do you agree with political expert Leonid Radzikhovsky that Putin considers the country’s citizens just as subjects?
Like any adult, Putin’s views on the surrounding people also evolve. In this respect, it is hard for him because he doesn’t talk with ordinary people, he doesn’t have any direct interaction with the common people — he just has an idea of how these people live, what they want. And I am inclined to agree with Radzikhovsky, the people used to be a subject of study for Putin, as special service employees were obliged to know, understand whom they interact with, do some research on citizens, and now Putin thinks that he doesn't have to know it. In his opinion, now he is convinced that he knows the situation in the country and knows what the subjects needs and in what direction they should be driven.
The people used to be a subject of study for Putin, as special service employees were obliged to know, understand whom they interact with, do some research on citizens, and now Putin thinks that he shouldn’t know it
That financial stratification happening in our country, of course, should concern the informed ruler because the number of the poor is increasing in our country, but the president is said about average indicators that it’s not a big deal. And this is why poverty issues don’t concern him — according to the messages to the Federal Council, he has an inner conviction that he is aware of the situation and he doesn’t wish to study the details — the same old lady from Prostokvashino village.
“The head of the government doesn’t answer the question about where we are going”
We know that only Vladimir Putin makes all key decisions influencing the life and development of the country. Does Putin govern the country if you are saying that he can’t see the normal picture with the same ordinary people’s lives? One thing is to decide, another thing is to rule the country’s life, its movement.
I will express a rebellious thought: we can’t be talking about task-oriented management of the country. It seems to me that different interests of different financial groups and different self-interested people in Putin’s circle, unfortunately, form a very vague economic goal. I don’t see clearly outlined goals and clearly outlined indicators either in documents or speeches. I see national programmes, some achievements of separate sectors of the economy, some concern about rural agriculture or import substitutions, but if I asked people in the street: “In what direction does our country develop?”, no person in our country would say it. But if the citizens don’t know it, it isn’t the best way of development in the country in general.
What about the people who rule the country?
As it is known, Yevgeny Minchenko has the term Politbureau 2.0, and I can accept a part of these thoughts: everyone who is included in this Politbureau 2.0, cares about his area, but I don’t see a single centre to make decisions. In fact, Dmitry Medvedev must be such a centre; economic and social life is his expertise, while Putin must protect the country’s borders — spiritual, physical, he must work on security, the possibility of justice. But I don’t see Medvedev’s role in managing the country, the head of the government doesn’t answer the question about where we are going.
In fact, Dmitry Medvedev must be such a centre; economic and social life is his expertise, while Putin must protect the country’s borders
“If there aren’t goals, whatever you do can be turned into a victory”
But same Medvedev could rule economic and social processes if there were a development strategy. And the president must adopt it. In several pre-election campaigns, we heard about “Putin’s plan” but learnt nothing clear about it. Why hasn’t Putin launched a wide development programme of the country during these 20 years? We hear only about national projects, May decrees and that’s it, where is the strategy?
For this purpose, the president’s team probably lacks mental capacity, but I think the desire to be the best president of all times and peoples did Putin a disservice here. What is like to be the best? The best is the person who can’t be held accountable for something he didn’t do.
It’s like in Alice in Wonderland tale here. There is a moment when Alice appears in a meadow where the Cat is sitting. Alice asks him how to get out of here, the Cat asks in reply: “Where do you want to go?”. Alice says: “I don’t much care where”, and the Cat replied: “Go whatever way then”. You know, if there aren’t goals and plans, if they aren’t made public, whatever you do can be turned into a victory. This is why Putin’s circle carefully works with plans and public recognition of these plans — not to be responsible for what has been done and what hasn’t been done.
Perhaps the fact that Putin isn’t a reformer but conservative in fact is the case?
Putin changed the country anyway during the first two terms — he made the world community respect it and gave businesses advanced solutions. Putin has an ability to make reforms, and in this respect, the president simply did a great job in 2000-2008. But the case is that some time later there appears a burden to save what you have achieved and probably an unwillingness to change something not to let it get worse.
And the crisis in 2008 also played a dirty joke on Putin, I think. It is quite possible that the management of the country was concerned about the general economic situation around the world, thought that they should join hands, clasp them and don’t go hither and thither, stay firm, and here that encapsulation I already talked about happened.
To be continued