In my last two blogs I have given biographical overviews of Vladimir Putin up to the time of his appointment as president on January 1, 2000. Next month, March 2018, he is expected by almost everyone here and abroad to be elected to another six year term. How is it that this man from very poor and difficult beginnings has become the leader of Russia for so many years? The West has tried to “demonize” Putin for some time now. If he is as corrupt as they say, as devious as they say, as manipulative as they say, why is it that he continues to enjoy public approval ratings that no national politician in America even comes close to? Are Russians themselves corrupt and controlling (“almost genetically” driven that way according to the racist James Clapper)? Or is it that they are naive, foolish, ignorant or a combination of all the above? If Joe Biden is right, why have the Russians gotten it so wrong?
I would like to point out the way Putin handled three complex issues that I believe reveal aspects of his leadership that are important for understanding how he was first elected president and has been able to stay in office for so long. Obviously there are other factors, and I have left off his handling of several issues and events. But the nature of a blog is one cannot discuss everything. This is an overview, not an in-depth analysis. I’ll close with some personal observations on why I think things are viewed so differently here in Russia than in America.
THE “SECOND WAR” WITH CHECHNYA. The first issue I will discuss in Putin becoming accepted by the people of Russia arose at the time he was appointed and then narrowly approved by the Duma as Prime Minister. At that time his positive ratings were between 1-2%. Their attitudes toward him began to change as a result of the conflict in Chechnya and Dagestan. This region was made part of Russia centuries ago. Their location is in the southern region around the Caucasus, rather close to the Caspian Sea. Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia joined together in 1917. Eventually they became part of the USSR. The area is heavily Muslim although Dagestan is ethnically diverse. After the fall of the USSR, Chechnya wanted to leave the Russian Federation. Dagestan did not. In 1994 Chechnya rebelled against Russian rule. They went to war. This “first war” with Chechnya lasted two years and proved to be a humiliating defeat for Russia. Despite its much larger size Russia was not able to control Chechnya. Yeltsin tried at least “to contain” the rebels, but was not successsful. The weakness of the Russian military was evident. Yeltsin signed a peace treaty with Chechnya in 1996.
Upon his appointment as Prime Minister, Putin immediately requested absolute and direct control over handling the Chechen problem. Yeltsin agreed. Chechen leader Shamil Basayev had declared he wanted to make neighboring Dagestan an Islamic State. The majority of the people in Dagestan, as it turned out, did not want to become an Islamic State. In August of 1999 when approximately 2,000 Chechen guerillas infiltrated the region, Putin responded quickly. He announced Russia would drive the Muslim terrorists out of Dagestan and pursue them into Chechnya. Putin ordered bombers and helicopter gunships to attack villages and locations where the rebels were known to be. The residents of Dagestan sided with the Russians. The rebels retreated, and Putin ordered his troops to stay in pursuit.
In response the terrorists carried out a series of car bombs. The first bomb was at an apartment in Dagestan where Russian troops were staying. Then there were two bomb attacks on apartments in Moscow and finally one in Volgodonsk (southern Russia). A total of 305 people (including children) were killed, and 846 were wounded. Putin stepped up the pressure in Chechnya and approved his general’s plan for total war. The rebels retreated to Grozny, the capital city of Chechnya. Putin ordered bombing raids. He received international criticism for these attacks, since obviously citizens were killed. Heretofore, the Islamic radicals had used withdrawing into a city as a means of neutralizing their opponent. The plan did not work with Putin. They were terrorists who had killed innocent Russians within the Russian Federation. After having been repeatedly questioned by the media about the bombing attacks on the city, Putin responded angrily to a reporter’s question: “We will go after (the terrorists) wherever they are. If, pardon me, we find them in the toilet, we’ll waste them in the outhouse.” By January the rebels abandoned Grozny. In doing so they fell into a trap set by the Russians for any fleeing militants. Several hundred more rebels were killed trying to escape the city.
Boris Yeltsin later said he considered Putin’s actions at the time political suicide. He indicated he knew Putin saw it the same way. It was as if he did not care that he would not have a political career afterwards, reflected Yeltsin. Putin was determined to defeat them because of what they had done to the citizens of Russia and Dagestan and believed it would prevent further attacks.
The pundits were wrong, however, about the impact his decisions would have on his political future. His popularity began to rise. In the fall his ratings went up into the 20-30% range. His handling of the crisis with the Chechens gave limited vindication to the reputation of a nation whose citizens had had very little to give them any sense of pride in quite some time.
Putin took over as president by appointment on January 1 and prepared for his first election ever, which would be in March. Putin hated campaigning and refused to do it in the traditional way. He brought in Dmitri Medvedev to run his campaign but refused to give “stump” speeches or do TV commercials. He made a rather raw remark to the effect that choosing a president was not on the level of deciding on “tampax or snickers.” The main way chosen to let people know more about him were “biographical interviews” aired on television and then in the print media. In addition to information on his background, he told people how bad he thought the problems were in Russia and what he was doing about them. According to surveys, two things impacted people greatly. First, he did what he said he would do in those first three months. He was the first politician who actually told them what he wanted to do and then showed what he was doing to accomplish those goals. Second, people sensed or believed he had not been sucked in by the corruption and intrigue which they had seen for over a decade in other politicians. When the election was held in March of 2000, Putin won by 53%.
PRIVATIZATION & CORRUPTION. After becoming president, Putin focused on the issue of “privatization” which began long before he became president. In general, privatization refers to the process of transferring assets from the government to the private sector. When Gorbachev came to power, the state (USSR) owned almost all the assets in the country. Gorbachev started market oriented reforms which allowed for some limited privatization to be enacted gradually. But perestroika was not an economic plan. Eventually, some joked perestroika had become “catastroika” (destruction, catastrophy). The process got corrupted early on. In general, those with power were able to take control of the large assets of the government. The more they accumulated, the more they were able to bribe whoever they needed to bribe to get even more. Further, they were often able to dodge any taxes on what they illegally obtained. Oil and gas companies were the primary foci of the corruption. The abuse really increased during Yeltsin’s years. At one point Yeltsin even told those in power, “Take as much sovereignty as you can swallow.” So while the term sounds innocuous enough, it was poisonous for the Russian economy.
Putin wanted privatization to continiue but without being the domain of the oligarchs. Putin believed land and other assets should be available for private owndership, but he wanted all Russians to be able to participate. He also did not believe assets essential to the well-being of the country should be in the hands of these oligarchs who seemed focused only on their own profit margins. He set a course that would allow people to obtain their own apartments, land, farms, etc. He dealt with the oligarchs by agreeing that they were free to pursue their business interests, but, in turn, they had to stay out of politics. Further, he encouraged them to invest in Russia. Third, he simplified the tax code. He implemented a flat tax rate on income at 13%. He reduced the rate of corporate tax profit from 35% to 24%. He insisted, however, that there would be greater penalties if corporations or the oligarchs themselves sought to continue to dodge taxes or play politics. Once in February of 2003 Putin and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, perhaps his main nemesis, had a rather sharp exchange in which Khodorskovsky implied Putin was corrupt. Putin responded, “Mr. Khodorkovsky, are you completely sure your taxes are in order?” He replied brazenly, “Absolutely.” Putin responded, “Well, that’s what we are going to find out.” Eventually it did not work out well for Mr. Khodorkovsky.
The result of monitoring the oligarchs and the simplification of the tax system were factors in the increase of the government revenues. There were other important factors as well. Oil prices continued to rise early in Putin’s presidency. That is always a good thing for the Russian economy. Further, the fact that farmers (and others) owned their land resulted in an increase of productivity. This fact supplemented the increase brought about by the main economic assets of Russia—gas and oil.
Additionally, there were events that negatively impacted Putin’s reputation. The sinking of the Kursk, Russia’s most modern submarine, in August of 2000 was perhaps the worst. Putin was briefed on the situation the morning after it happened, and his military advisers gave him a reassuring, albeit very inaccurate, report. They told him the Kursk had plenty of resources for survival. So Putin went ahead with a planned trip to Sochi. Eventually Russia could not get inside the vessel. On August 19 Norwegians arrived and got inside the vessel in 20 minutes. Obviously it was too late. Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinksy, two oligarchs who did not care for Putin, controlled the TV news media and presented the news in the worst possible light for Putin. Putin’s popularity suffered.
CHANGES IN PAY/ECONOMY. The third issue Putin faced was maintaining the military and government services while also translating the government revenues into tangible help for the working class. After becoming president he increased pensions by 12% and then shortly thereafter by 20%. The average income in 2000 when Putin became president was 2,700 rubles; the average in 2012 when Putin last ran for president was 29,000. One reason the salary rate was so low in 2000 was because teachers, government workers, medical professionals and others went without pay for many months at a time. For example, last week my wife ran into the lady who taught her English when she was in high school. They began talking about the “old days,” and her teacher recalled how they went for months without pay in the 90s. She once taught six months in a public school without a paycheck. This was not uncommon. People did whatever they could to survive. After classes some teachers from Oksana’s school ran to the flea market to sell packages with imported tights – a part of the wardrobe coveted by many Russian women and girls, but scarce in the communist days. By the end of spring of Putin’s first year in office, all unpaid salaries had been paid.
Putin’s popularity continued to rise over the years. In 2004 he won by 70%. Putin could not serve as president in 2008 because of the constitutional restriction to two consecutive terms. After Dmitry Medvedev was president for one term (while Putin served as Prime Minister), Putin was re-elected in 2012 with 63% of the vote.
After having lived here and trying to familiarize myself with Russian attitudes as much as possible, there are things I see that cause misunderstanding on the part of Westerners, particularly Americans. We Americans tend to get very emotional about our leaders. It is often a love or hate relationship. After Hillary Clinton was defeated in 2016 there were many scenes on TV and in print media showing her followers openly weeping. Even looking at the reporters on CNN or MSNBC one could see the deep sense of personal loss felt by the news commentators. As one friend quipped to me, “Wow, you’d think their best dog just died.” Likewise, I have seen people get very emotional in their support of Donald Trump. If one says something negative about him, there is often a strong cry of offense. Clearly, Trump has been maligned by the majority of media types who just do not like him. The debate or the discussion then becomes heated and emotional. This scenario is how the majority of political “discussions” now take place in America. To a great extent in America, politics is being done at a visceral level.
Now, I’ve seen Russian newscasters and debaters get pretty excited and even shrill, but it is usually over issues or interpretations of the facts. Clearly there are exceptions, but most Russians I know personally or see on TV just do not get emotionally involved with Vladimir Putin either way. Some really like him; some don’t care for him. But when I read that Putin gets an 80% approval rating, I don’t interpret that as meaning 80% of Russians are in agreement with all he’s done or that they fawn over him and get a Chris Matthews’ “thrill going up the back of the leg” when he speaks. Most Russians I know see good points and bad points in Putin. Some I know who are generally favorable to him still think inflation has outrun pensions; many believe he does not give enough breaks to help out small businesses. On the whole, however, most think he does a good job on other fronts. So they look at the total picture and approve of the job he’s doing without being willfully blind to the flaws.
AMERICA AND PUTIN. The sanctions and the expansion east by NATO has strengthened Putin’s support in Russia. Since the first sanctions a few years ago his approval ratings have gone from the low 60s to the low 80s. Last week I was chatting with my friend Yuri. He was a physician in the Soviet navy. He is Ukrainian by birth and still travels home on rare occasions. He became a bit nostalgic about the old USSR days. He said, “We all got along. It was before the West came in and gave money to the Nazi supporters. They split us up. And health care…my patients did not worry about paying. We had free health care.” I thought he was going to tell me he really would like to return to a Communist leader. He continued, “Hal, do the American leaders not know how much they have done for Putin’s support? If it weren’t for Putin, the West would have destroyed our economy and moved their NATO troops within our borders. They want us at war with Ukraine.” Yuri supports Putin because he realizes the West wants global superiority, and he doesn’t want to risk a change in leadership. He’s not a fervant Putin supporter, but he believes Putin cares about the country and will stand up to Russia’s western adversaries.
Then a few days later we were riding back from church in a taxi. The cab driver somehow starting talking about politics and next month’s election. He said, “We have to have Putin as our leader. If it weren’t for him the West would have auctioned off our country by now. Listen to what they say about us. They want to destroy us. With someone else in power, they probably would.”
Biden’s plans are, because of his extreme ignorance and strong political ambitions, misguided and counterproductive. Since he knows nothing of Russia, he and those who share his uninformed views have ended up encouraging the very attitudes they would like to undermine. I pointed out in Part 2 of my response to Biden and Carpenter’s article that the sanctions have actually caused the Russian economy to diversify and flourish. Now Congress has had the U.S. Treasury compile a list of over 200 oligarchs (basically individuals worth over 1 billion dollars) and political leaders “close to Putin” evidently to prepare sanctions against them. Apparently it does not occur to these “Russophobes” that they may be driving these individuals to Putin. Many of them have invested heavily in the West. Putin has tried to get them to invest in Russia. Now they may have to. Even Mikhail Prokhorov is on the list. He is the owner of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team. He’s probably as pro-American as any Russian I know of. Yet he’s deemed “close to Putin”? So they want to drive his financial assets—well over a billion dollars—back into Russia? Good for Russia; bad for America. The short-sightedness and, well, stupidity of our Russian policies are amazing.
Putin himself is not driven by emotions. All kinds of verbal assaults have been thrown at him by Western leaders as I discussed in an earlier blog. He never responds in kind to what I have termed their juvenile attacks. He maintains the air of a diplomat. He sets the tone for political discussion here. Until there is a return to informed diplomacy in America, I am sure Putin’s political base is secure. This is not because Russians are foolish or gullible or evil. It is because American leaders ignore authentic and informed diplomacy and continue to allow the “deep state” neocons and neo-interventionist liberals to lead us further down a path of destruction.
ADDENDUM: After writing my last blog on Putin and mentioning charges of corruption I came across this article by Sharon Tennison, who has extensive knowledge of Russia and how things get done here. She lived and worked in Russia for many years and has done much to foster good relations between Americans and Russians. The article makes her experience and research clear on the subject. https://consortiumnews.com/2018/02/06/understanding-russia-un-demonizing-putin/