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A Tale of Two Post-Soviet Presidents

Author: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
July 30, 2004
Wall Street Journal

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Does Vladimir Putin remind you of someone? Scholars have compared the Russian president to countless figures of the past: Peter the Great, Stalin, Napoleon, Louis XVIII and Generals de Gaulle, Pinochet and Suharto. The circumstances of Mr. Putin's rule are so unusual, however, that such analogies don't really clarify what he's up to. If we could measure him against a leader who faced the same problems when he took office -- official corruption, national insolvency, ethnic separatism, a discredited predecessor, a fragmented and ineffective political system, a divided camp of Westernized liberals -- it might help us judge Russia's current retreat from democracy.

There is a post-Soviet leader who is dealing with the same inheritance as Mr. Putin, and -- this is the surprising part -- in much the same way. It's Mikhail Saakashvili, the new Georgian president, whose "Rose Revolution" brought down Eduard Shevardnadze last year.

Most Westerners like Mr. Saakashvili, the Columbia-trained lawyer and presumed democrat, more than they like Mr. Putin, the KGB-trained lawyer and presumed authoritarian. But that's why the comparison is worth pursuing. It may suggest that we need to re-evaluate one or both of them. Presidents Putin and Saakashvili are the two most innovative politicians of the former Soviet Union -- and what links them is what they're up against, and what they're doing about it.

Both Mr. Putin and Mr. Saakashvili have a supreme goal of rebuilding the central government's power. Though Russia is huge and Georgia tiny, each president considers his country especially susceptible to break-up and disorder -- hence their efforts to reel back semi-sovereign regional leaders. Messrs. Putin and Saakashvili have also focused on making state institutions work. They know that a government that can't collect taxes can't do its many other jobs. And each president has zeroed in on corruption, launching highly publicized campaigns that have included arrests even of members of a predecessor's entourage.

This new-broom strategy has transformed the political landscape of both countries. Each president enjoys cult-like adoration, especially among young people. And the political coalitions that both lead have so many seats in parliament that it is no longer a real check on executive power. As a result, many observers worry that Russia and Georgia are succumbing to a tradition of strongman leadership. Critics point to apparent abuses of presidential popularity, from legal changes that strengthen the executive to pressure on the broadcast media to limit criticism of the government. Messrs. Putin and Saakashvili have been scolded by human-rights NGO's or European parliamentary monitors, but both of them have brilliantly cultivated relations with Western governments -- and kept outside critiques from having any lasting effect.

In both countries, in short, a once-fragmented political system now revolves around a single personality. It's an extraordinary achievement. Presidents Putin and Saakashvili are the only post-Soviet political leaders who have acquired an authentic popular mandate, started to rebuild the institutional tools they need to carry out their program, and preserved their international standing in doing so.

The unsettling aspects of both presidencies frame the big question of post-Soviet politics: whether there are unavoidable trade-offs between building an effective state and building a real democracy. That is clearly what Mr. Putin wants us to believe. But before we accept the argument, it's worth pushing the comparison between him and Mr. Saakashvili a bit further. For beneath the similarities, there are big differences too, and these point to the weakness of Mr. Putin's case.

For instance, although both presidents are determined to combat corruption, they come at it from opposite directions. Mr. Saakashvili treats it as a problem to be solved by bringing state institutions under effective legal control. Mr. Putin's approach is to weaken those outside the state who want to influence it. He worries more about businessmen who pay bribes than about officials who demand them. The difference matters. By strengthening the state bureaucracy before reforming it, Mr. Putin gives it more opportunities to exercise power corruptly -- and probably makes it harder to reform in the long run. He's made his own position more secure, but weakened political pluralism.

The two presidents have created different political movements. Mr. Saakashvili's ruling coalition is an all-reformist bloc: Virtually anyone who has worked to modernize Georgia along Western lines is part of it. Mr. Saakashvili holds this coalition together only by continually revalidating his own commitment to reform. Mr. Putin's coalition, by contrast, is based only on power. Reformist figures around him are cut off from any political base; when they leave government they become irrelevant. "United Russia" is the most successful ruling party Russia has seen since Soviet days; but its members have nothing in common except patronage. If the coalition were to splinter, nothing would remain of it. Of course, Mr. Saakashvili's alliance might fragment, too. But if it did, it would leave behind smaller parties -- the moving parts of a functioning democracy.

Finally, each president's personal style is reshaping his country's politics in deeply different ways. Mr. Saakashvili, the more gifted politician in style and temperament, is confident that he can dominate open debate and competition, so he does not fear them. He takes bold positions and rallies public sentiment behind him, sometimes in direct confrontation with his opponents. His method -- his mystique, even -- is that of popular empowerment. Mr. Putin's mystique is that of power itself. He would no more have stormed into parliament at the head of a crowd bearing roses, as Mr. Saakashvili did, than he would have stood on a tank to stop a coup. He shows his dominance not by injecting himself into ongoing public dramas but by personifying bureaucratic authority.

A successful politician's key trait is a kind of personal distillation of his goals. Mr. Saakashvili's is spontaneity; Mr. Putin's is discipline. Mr. Saakashvili aims to open up Georgian politics, to keep its energy level high so he can get things done. Mr. Putin apparently wants to reach his goals by reducing the energy level of Russian politics, by closing it down rather than opening it up.

As Mr. Putin begins his second term, these differences between him and Mr. Saakashvili point to the main obstacles to real Russian democracy. The Russian state is being reconstituted at the expense of political pluralism. Movements toward reform are thwarted in the name of a reformist agenda. And the demobilization of politics strengthens an unaccountable state bureaucracy. Mr. Putin sometimes hints that he sees the drawbacks in this system -- and wants to become more like Mr. Saakashvili. Didn't he say in his inaugural address that Russia's problems cannot be solved if only one man has power? Hasn't he insisted that he'll shake up the bureaucracy in his second term? Didn't he lecture Russia's Central Electoral Commission about encouraging a multiplicity of parties?

Perhaps these really are Mr. Putin's goals. But so far he has subordinated them to order, stability, and bureaucratic authority. He's right that building a strong state on a democratic foundation is hard. His mistake is to think that there are no real models for doing so. The truth is, he has one right next door.


Mr. Sestanovich is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University. From 1997 to 2001 he was U.S. ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union.

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