Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Russia Will Hit Bottom Because of Putin But Only After He Leaves Office, Pastukhov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 1 – Because of his approach to power, Vladimir Putin is leaving Russia “with a destroyed economy, without institutions, and with a morally degraded elite” and thus in a position comparable only to the time of troubles of the early 17th century or the revolutions of the start of the 20th, according to Vladimir Pastukhov.

            In brief, Pastukhov, a Russian scholar at St. Antony’s College in Great Britain, argues in yesterday’s “Novaya gazeta,” as bad as things are now, they will be even worse when Putin leaves because he is the only one who has any chance of holding the system he has created together (

            And as the country deteriorates, Pastukhov continues, Putin is not capable of changing his course. “There will not be any new Putin; there will only be the old and the very old.” And what that means is that “Putin is not so much irreplaceable as he is unchangeable This is his tragedy,” one that means he is more properly a figure of “sympathy rather than hatred.”

            Today, the St. Antony’s scholar argues, “if Russia needs a tsar, it needs a tsar who builds and creates.” But “Putin is not a creator: he is a defender or more precisely a preserver.” He came to power not to build something new but to restore something old.” His goal is summed up in the phrase “’the Russia which we have lost.’”

            “But this Russia,” Pastukhov points out “never existed. Putin’s ideal is thus a mirage.” The Russian president is “a hostage” to it and as a result “has fallen victim” to its “demons,” demons that have led him to try to unite Germany “with the help of a tunnel under the Berlin wall, not having noticed that this wall was long ago pulled down.”

            When a political leader is proceeding with the flow of history, the scholar says, “his personal qualities however strange this may seem, do not matter” as much as when as in Putin’s case, he is fighting against the current. Then, they matter a great deal and often define what happens

            “For some, Putin is the object of cult-like respect; for others, he is the target of poorly concealed hatred and suspicion,” Pastukhov argues, but “in reality, there are no causes either for canonization or demonization,” once one recognizes that he fits “in the pantheon of Soviet leaders … no less educated than Stalin or Andropov, and no less artistic than Khrushchev.”

            But Putin’s worldview has “a principled significance for the fates of Russia. “An inborn legal nihilist, Putin is creating chaos in everything he touches. In fact,” Pastukhov says, “he doesn’t so much administer political processes as find himself under the power of spontaneous forces which he is not in a position to master.”

            Because of his charisma and because of the way he plays these various forces, however, Putin keeps things from falling completely apart, something many recognize and that causes “the overwhelming majority of Russians to perfectly sincerely wish Putin a long life” because they “understand that things will remain well only as long as Putin is in the Kremlin.”

            “Putin really has made titanic efforts to preserve Russia just as he knew and loved it (in a Soviet fashion).” But that isn’t enough, Pastukhov says, because “the problem is that this is ‘a labor of Sisyphus,” something that has to be done over and over again because his approach itself to Russia’s problems is so deeply flawed.

            To take but one aspect of this problem: “Putin cannot overcome corruption for the simple reason that he is its source.  He wants to be a Russian Lee Kwan Yew, but he doesn’t want to do” what the Singaporean leader did and arrest his “26 closest friends.” Instead, he has done what he can to put them beyond the reach of the law.

            Moreover, the current Russian president has drowned the population in lies about things big and small, often “without any practical goal.” And “a state build on lies is like a castle build on sand. He looks magnificent until the first rain,” in this case, until the person who has erected it departs the scene.

            That is all the more so because Putin will have left Russia in a far worse position than it was after Stalin or Brezhnev, and consequently, Pastukhov argues, it is quite likely that the country will face a new cataclysm equivalent to those it went through during the time of troubles and during the revolutionary epoch.

            No one is likely going to be able to continue Putin’s approach because Putin has given the country its particular form, “and therefore it will be impossible to put any other in his place without changing the entire configuration of power,” something that won’t be easy or take place without radical shifts across the board.

            “The stability of the Putin regime,” Pastukhov suggests, is based on a large set of “personal” links, three of which are primary.  First, there is what he calls “Putin and Sechin,” a relationship that resembles that of Ivan the Terrible and the oprichniki and whose various factions can be held together only by the current president.

            Second, there is “Putin and Kadyrov,” a reflection of the way in which Putin stopped “a colonial war” through a compromise which requires “the Empire to de facto pay tribute to the colonies in exchange for the formal recognition of the sovereignty of the Empire.” Putin’s departure will require a new arrangement, one that won’t be achieved peacefully.

            And third, there is “Putin and Obama.”  Putin is “acceptable” for the West because he has restored a certain level of control over the enormous territory of a nuclear power. “Despite his aggressive rhetoric, [Putin] is a typical compradore leader who successfully defends the interests of major trans-national companies.”

            Despite occasion spats, “the ‘collective Obama’ is ready even in the future to close its eyes to what is taking place in Russia” as long as things remain stable. But “as soon as the status quo is violated,” Pastukhov says, “the West will get involved” in a more serious way in what is going on in Russia.

            Using these and other personal arrangements, “Putin has built his own comfortable house of cards. But only he can live in it.” Once he leaves office, it will collapse and then Russia will hit a new bottom. That may have positive consequences, Pastukhov says, because Russians tend to respond best when they are in such a situation.

            But it is a situation that is coming thanks to Putin but only after he leaves and one that everyone must think about and begin preparing for.

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