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Sestanovich: Putin Seeking to Use Concern Over Terrorism to Strengthen Control Over Russia

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
September 15, 2004

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Stephen R. Sestanovich, the Council’s leading expert on Russia, expresses concern over President Vladimir Putin’s plan to tighten his personal hold over the Russian political, economic, and social scene. He says that in the wake of the recent terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, Putin has responded by dusting off some of his old ideas on how to strengthen the powers of the presidency—plans which have nothing to do with fighting terrorism.

“As a response to terrorism, it is as though George Bush said that he was going to answer the challenge of al Qaeda by firing George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani. It’s hard to see the connection. In fact, very few Russian observers or politicians have been persuaded of the connection,” says Sestanovich, a former top adviser in the Clinton administration and the Council’s George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies.

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on September 15, 2004.

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Last week when we talked you said that Russian President [Vladimir] Putin did not have any concrete policy for dealing with Chechnya. Since then, he has announced a proposal to change radically the setup of government in Russia. Can you explain what he is proposing?

Putin has pulled out from the top drawer of his desk some ideas that he and his associates have floated in the past for increasing the power of the president. He is talking now about ending popular elections for the governors of Russia’s 89 regions. And he is proposing to base all parliamentary seats on national party lists. With respect to the governors, they would now be nominated by Putin with ratification by the legislatures of each region.

With respect to the party lists for the Duma [parliament], the number of parties that get into the Duma has now shrunk since the last election to four. The only time independent deputies from the so-called liberal parties or from other smaller parties get in is when they are elected in single mandate districts. That will be eliminated.

As a response to terrorism, it is as though George Bush said that he was going to answer the challenge of al Qaeda by firing [Governor of New York] George Pataki and [former New York City mayor] Rudy Giuliani. It’s hard to see the connection. In fact, very few Russian observers or politicians have been persuaded of the connection.

It does seem like a policy non sequitur. But hasn’t the reaction from the governors been passive or accepting, at least from what I have seen reported in the American press?

There’s an interesting wrinkle in Putin’s proposal. It gives governors an incentive to support him. On the one hand, he said he wants to be able to appoint governors in the future, but he also proposes to eliminate term limits on governors. So sitting governors now have a chance of serving longer if they stay in good with Putin. It is a rather clever proposal on his part. So most of the governors who were looking at a term limit deadline have, to no one’s surprise, come out in favor of his suggestion.

Other politicians and journalists and commentators have been more critical, even some people who have been long-time Putin supporters. Even supporters of Putin’s measures to restrict democracy and pluralism in Russia have criticized what he has done in the last couple of days. One of my favorite responses was the comment of a very strong supporter of Putin’s who said ’power in the country is now run by a national presidential administration and bureaucracy that looks like a nationwide organized crime group.’

Who said that?

Stanislav Belkovsky. He’s the head of the National Strategy Institute, a think tank that has been very supportive of Putin.

As you know, in the Soviet period, the Communist Party picked all major officials. There was no free election. Is this an attempt by Putin, a former KGB officer, to get closer to the old kind of Soviet rule?

Well, it is certainly very centralized. It will make anybody who aspires to high office, either regionally or nationally, dependent on the president. That’s a goal that Putin and his KGB pals have had for some time and haven’t been too shy about admitting. It plays into a Russian anxiety right now that their government and their institutions don’t work very well, that they leave Russian citizens vulnerable to terrorist attack and something has to be done to improve this situation. But the idea that this is going to be the kind of measure that will make the police work better, or the military, or the other security institutions, is rather implausible.

Putin, I might add, at the time of his election, was talking a lot about corruption, as if it was something he had to clean up. He said he was going to make reform of the state bureaucracy one of his top goals in his second term. He has pretty much scrapped that talk over the last couple of months. But in the wake of the terrorist attacks, both the airplane bombings and the hostage-taking in Beslan, criticism of corruption has become so widespread that he’s had to respond to it, and he’s obviously seen this as the moment to dust off these other proposals for increasing his administrative political control over the whole country. He thinks people will be unable to resist ideas of this kind even though they resisted them in the past.

When we talk about corruption, what does that generally mean in the Russian context? Is it people buying official positions? Is it a Mafia-kind of corruption?

It is a pervasive misuse of state positions, of state power, for private ends. When asked how it was that two planes could take off from a Moscow airport with bombs on board, the conclusion people came to—a more or less consensus view among Russian commentators—is that somebody was bought, that at whatever level, nobody could be sure. But the idea was ’we have a system of guards and security procedures in an airport that doesn’t work because you can always buy your way into anything.’

Was there proof, or is it just an assumption?

Absolutely no proof of it. But it shows you something about the confidence level that Russians have in their own institutions, and in public servants high and low. This was intensified after the seizure of the school by the inconsistent, disingenuous, or patently false explanations that were given by officials both locally and nationally. Nobody believed a word of it. And I think Putin has probably been a bit undone himself by the way in which, in response to this horrifying series of events, he can’t get any traction in public confidence. He hasn’t any ideas to offer on what would be an adequate response to these events, and so he falls back on something familiar, which is ’let’s improve central control.’

As far as the war against terrorism goes, is he hoping this will distract people?

I don’t know what he thinks he will be able to do in actually dealing with what is now a wave of terrorism, not just the incidents over the past couple of weeks, but repeated incidents over the past year. He has installed probably his most trusted and most important senior aide in Moscow as the regional representative in the North Caucusus, Dmitri Kozak, who was his deputy head of presidential administration and more recently, his man overseeing the cabinet. He sent him to the North Caucusus as his [L. Paul] Bremer [former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad], his czar to try to pull things together there. He also said there would be new unified military and police operational groups created that will be ready to act quickly on the basis of better training, better equipment, and better intelligence in the event of future terrorist incidents.

There was also a proposal that has a kind of [Department of] Homeland Security ring to it to unify institutions that deal with the problems of terrorism. Those are the kinds of measures that you might expect from most governments in an atmosphere of crisis, and by themselves they are not so terribly disturbing. I don’t know if they will make much difference in the actual prevention of future incidents. What is interesting is that Putin paired them with these other proposals which seem to have primarily the narrow political goal of increasing his own power.

What is his personality like? Could he become another Stalin?

You know, people in the beginning did not think that Stalin’s personality was the sort that would turn him into one of the most bloodthirsty, maniacal tyrants of all time. Stalin was unassuming and even charming, people thought, [a man] who could never rise above his seeming bureaucratic nature. That’s not a bad description of Putin. He’s mild-mannered. Some people find him charming. But everybody regards him as a long-time bureaucrat who has risen above his and our expectations. Such people have become tyrants in the past.

But there’s no way in this day and age you could have another dictator per se, is there?

No, but you can have a government that is much less pluralistic than what we normally think of as a Western political system. You can have an economy that is far more controlled by the state than we are used to even in mixed economies. You can have a society that has much less in the way of independent organizations able to support themselves and pursue their interests and objectives and agendas without approval from the Kremlin.

Over the course of the past few years, it has become clear that Putin has in mind such a system, whether it’s in the political, economic, or social realm. He wants less room for organized action by anyone who might challenge him.

Does this carry over to the controversy over the arrest of Mikhail Khodorovsky, the head of Yukos? How is that playing out?

Well, Khodorovsky has recognized that he has lost Yukos and Yukos will probably be broken up and the state will be responsible for it and will probably pick up the pieces. An interesting development reported in the papers today is that Putin has encouraged Gasprom, the world’s largest natural gas company, to buy Rosneft, one of the oil companies in Russia that has remained completely under state control. The result of this transaction would be to make both Gasprom and Rosneft completely state-controlled entities and that’s the direction of Putin’s economic policy, to bring more of the economy directly under state ownership.

Is that bad or good, given the corruption in the private sector?

It’s bad because it means that all decisions are going to be made in the same office by the same person.