Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

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Saturday, March 1, 2014

Putin the Bumbler

Putin once said that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the greatest disaster of the Twentieth Century. Putin was a man formed by the Soviet Union, by the secret police that he spent his career in. Unlike Boris Yeltsin who appointed him prime minister in December 1999 he was never comfortable with the idea of freedom. Unlike Aleksander Solzhenitsyn who looks back to Russian history before the Soviet Union, Putin's scope of history is limited to the period after November 1917. So which Soviet leader does Putin see as his model? There are several who might come to mind. 

It is doubtful that Putin sees himself as another Stalin--Stalin's memory has been too discredited by the revelations starting with those made by Khrushchev at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956 and continuing afterwards especially during the Gorbachev and Yeltsin periods. And Putin is not a revolutionary at heart, wishing to overthrow the state or at least its regime--so we can rule out Lenin. And Boris Yeltsin's alcoholism, boorish behavior and general incompetence in the last years of his relatively short reign rule him out. So this leaves a limited number of possible models: Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko, and Mikhail Gorbachev. We can probably rule out Chernenko: a gray party functionary who was only in power for about thirteen months before he died in early 1985. We might rule out Andropov as well on the same grounds--he lasted a month longer, but Andropov was once head of the KGB and thus Putin's former boss and a "reformer" in Soviet terms. So we might consider him.

Putin is like both Khrushchev and Brezhnev in that he wanted to expand the area under Moscow's control. He starts from a low point in modern Russian history with Russia having lost control of its Cold War empire in Eastern Europe and of the republics of the former Soviet Union so that Putin today can only really claim to control Russia and neighboring Belarus. Since he came to power at the turn of the century, Putin has been attempting to consolidate power in what Russians refer to as the near abroad, the former republics of the Soviet Union. He has supported separatist movements in Georgia to undermine the sovereignty of the Georgian government in Tbilisi. In 2008 he went to war against Georgia after the Georgian leader was foolish enough to provoke him. Now he is attempting to regain power in Ukraine by means of using the Russian-speaking ethnic Russian minority in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine. 

But in more ways, in his situation he resembles Gorbachev near the end of Gorbachev's seven years in power. Gorbachev came to power as a protege of Yuri Andropov and attempted to implement the vision of Andropov to reform the economy within the parameters of Communist ideology in order to make it more efficient in order to better compete with the capitalist West. Gorbachev wanted to end alcoholism by heavily taxing vodka and other spirits. He also wanted to introduce computers into the Soviet Union. But Gorbachev found that the system was unreformable. In the end he tried merely to keep the republics within the Soviet Union by crushing independence movements in the Baltic States. Gorbachev ended up pleasing no one. 

Putin was blessed in that Yeltsin freed him from having to work within Marxist-Leninist ideology. Putin could appeal to Russian patriotism and imperial pride without having to justify it in revolutionary terms. This allowed him to make deals with the Russian mafia on a scale that Brezhnev never dreamed of. Yeltsin by privatizing the economy created a class of crony capitalists who made their wealth and power on the basis of connections rather than either entrepreneurial skill or wise management. This class of crony capitalists are allowed to operate as long as they stay out of politics and don't criticize Putin publicly. 

Putin probably sees the younger Andropov as his model and imagines that he is doing what Andropov would have done had Andropov come to power five or ten years before he actually did. Had Andropov come to power in the 1970s at the height of Soviet power he might have been able to partially reform the economy, instill greater discipline among workers, and stopped the rot that set in during Brezhnev's eighteen years in power. When Putin schemes in Ukraine and in Georgia he is following the model set by Andropov in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Andropov as head of the KGB also headed up the efforts to suppress the political dissidents by having them declared mentally ill and locked up in insane asylums. Putin has used various laws limiting freedom of speech and has allied himself with the Russian Orthodox Church to promote his brand of Russian nationalism against those promoting democracy or even just liberal tolerance.

Putin's plan is to consolidate Russian power on Russia's southern border in the Caucuses and in Ukraine and then retire. Will he succeed? That depends on how successfully he exploits internal divisions within the target republics. He did a good job in Georgia in 2008. Not so good a job in Ukraine in 2014. So far. He has managed to alienate the government in Kiev.

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