The Rise of Putin, Part 3: Russian Politics

(Anatoly Maltsev/Pool Photo via AP)

The 1999 Duma elections were important for Putin’s eventual success.  A powerful movement had emerged among regional leaders anxious to consolidate the autonomy they won under Yeltsin.  In December 1998 Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov formed the “Fatherland” movement.  He failed to gain any traction since other regional leaders distrusted the motivations of the wealthy and cosmopolitan Muscovites.  In April 1999, the All Russia movement was formed through an alliance with Tatarstan president Mintimer Shaimiev and St. Petersburg governor Vladimir Yakovlev.  By August, Luzhkov joined them forming the Fatherland/All Russia  alliance (OVR) under the leadership of ousted prime minister Primakov.  This created a serious threat to Yeltsin and it was Stepashin’s failure to deter them that led to his ouster.  Victory in the Duma elections would propel either Luzhkov or Primakov into power after Yeltsin’s term expired.

The Kremlin responded by quickly forming a new party- Unity- to deal with the threat.  After ten years of local elections, Russian voters settled into two fairly stable blocks- the democrats (about 20% of the electorate) and the communists (about 30% of the electorate).  There was a great swath in between who were skeptical of the democrats and communists and who preferred a strong, pragmatic Russian national leader.  Outside Moscow, no political party, except maybe the Communists, was particularly strong.  In terms of ideology and organization, the field was wide open to new parties like Unity.  Unity got help not only from the Kremlin, but also oligarchs, particularly media mogul Boris Berezkovsky.  The withering propaganda campaign directed its attacks on Primakov and Luzhkov.  Luzhkov, in particular, was attacked for everything conceivable.  Meanwhile, Berezkovsky’s outlet was staunchly pro-Putin characterizing him as a nationalist hero.  

The opposition was built to tear down Yeltsin, not Putin.  The Kremlin succeeded in using its administrative resources to get regional leaders to abandon them in favor of the Unity party.  

Putin dispatched his own associates to each area to speak for him since, should he win, he was not beholden to regional leaders.  In all, over 530 people were recruited for this task and sent throughout Russia.  In the December, 1999 Duma elections, Unity garnered 23% of the vote to 24% for the communists.  Most importantly, OVR received only 13% rendering them nationally anemic.  This practically meant that come the presidential election, Putin would face only one viable opponent- a communist.  Meanwhile, the true liberals were split and fearful for their own political futures, ever mindful that if they failed to reach the 5% threshold in future Duma elections, they would be politically shut out.

Through December 1999, Putin’s popularity shot from 2% to 50% nationally.  What explains this?  The answer is twofold: incumbency and personality.  In 1996, Yeltsin found himself in single digits in terms of popularity nationally, but through pork-barrel spending projects and media manipulation, he staged a political miracle and won reelection.  As prime minister under Yeltsin, then Acting President, Putin had some control over pork-barrel spending, but used it sparingly.  Instead, he relied heavily upon manipulation of the media. 

Early on the night of March 26, 2000 things did not look good for Putin.  The far eastern stretches of Russia showed that Putin was not winning more than 50% of the vote to avoid an eventual runoff.  These areas are usually eight hours ahead in time.  But by 2:00 AM, when the western parts of Russia started turning in results, it became apparent that Putin’s strategy had paid off and he exceeded the 50% threshold to avoid a runoff.  At the end of the day, Putin had prevailed by 2.2 million votes and swept 83 of Russia’s 89 regions.  He failed to win a majority in Moscow (46%), but pulled in 62% from St. Petersburg, his hometown and political base.  Only the communist- Zyuganov- was left standing as any semblance of viable opposition.  He managed to prevail in five of the six regions Putin lost.

Putin managed to win the March, 2000 election with 52% of the vote.  It was the first successful democratic election under the new Russian constitution.  Russia had survived a period of extreme instability and uncertainty and its prospects for a favorable future looked bright in early 2000.  Few could escape the irony that after ten years of instability, Russia was faced with a choice between Putin, the former head of the KGB’s successor and Gennadi Zyuganov, a Communist.  Most commentators were surprised at Putin’s meteoric rise in power circles and most cast him as an enigma and could not decide if he was a closet liberal or a closet authoritarian.  His predecessor, Yeltsin, had also been cast as an enigma- part hero, part villain, and part alcoholic fool.   He oversaw the introduction of markets and the rise of oligarchic crony capitalism. 

Later investigations revealed that there was substantial vote-rigging and fraud in Putin’s favor in many areas.  Naturally, the Communists cried foul, but refused to legally challenge results.  Some voting irregularities and media manipulation was cited by the Russian election watchdogs, but they were silent on the alleged vote-rigging.  In the end, they declared the elections a success.

Upon assuming power, Putin’s primary task was rebuilding the Russian state.  The post-Soviet world was one of constant change where institutions had to be built and fostered that recognized the new reality.  While Soviet institutions were collapsing, the rest of the world did not stand still.  Globalization foisted changes upon governments around the world.  Free trade and an information revolution created an environment where states had to reconsider their old welfare systems and promote increasing international competitiveness.  The end of the Cold War forced every nation to confront transnational concerns from terrorism to AIDS.  An ongoing agricultural revolution produced a surplus of food while the rise of the service sector and new technologies meant that the traditional working class represented a growing minority of workers.  The winning countries found themselves in a cycle of increased economic growth, political tranquility at home and increased living standards.  The losing countries were trapped in a cycle of economic stagnation, rampant corruption, repeated crises, and political despair. 

Yeltsin had a strategy for dealing with the situation: integration with the West.  It was adopted largely by accident in the chaotic split of the old Soviet Union.  He embraced market liberalization and political democratic reforms by accepting the West’s rules of the game and sought to integrate Russia as soon as possible.  In his haste to embrace a quick fix from Western political and economic advisers, he failed to devote adequate attention to the need to adjust these rules to suit Russian conditions.  The strategy was pursued throughout his tenure as President.  More than 70% of industry shifted from state control into private hands.  Regular elections were held at local and regional levels.   

When he left office, the strategy was failing.  Russia showed eight consecutive years of negative GDP growth under Yeltsin and one-third of the population lived in poverty.  Despite these negative events, there was no adjustment to the strategy.  The 1998 collapse of the ruble and resulting economic problems seemed to be the breaking point when Yeltsin fired his Prime Minister Yevegni Primakov which presaged a change in Russian domestic policy.  The government formed cooperative relationships with the state Duma, raised export tariffs, and opened investigations into oligarchs to stem the outflow of capital.  When Yeltsin fired Primakov’s successor Sergei Stepashin and replaced him with Putin, no one knew what would happen next.  Would Yeltsin’s “reforms” survive Yeltsin?  

Questions arose as to whether the family- that close cadre of Yeltsin associates- would continue to hold sway after the departure of Yeltsin.  Nobody knew their strategy for dealing with separatist republics like Chechnya and Tatarstan, for an economic strategy, for dealing with the Duma or the Federal Council, or managing relations with the West.

By September 2000, answers started to emerge as it appeared Putin intended to continue on the path started by Yeltsin.  He started to address questions left unresolved by Yeltsin like the legal integrity of the country and a viable system of political competition.  He left alone the privatization of industry and integration with the West.  World leaders struggled to protect vulnerable social groups and preserve national cultures while adapting to the competitive nature of globalism.  It caused countries to embrace free trade and fiscal conservatism.  Putin was not unique.

There were areas where Putin broke from Yeltsin who preferred informal backroom deals.  It was how he dealt with everything from his relations with the republics and regional governments to his dealings with the oligarchs.  Putin, on the other hand, declared it a “dictatorship of the laws” where there were clear rules of the game.  In those first six months after his election, Putin started to dismantle the informal networks which, ironically, brought his rise to power a reality.  The fact that his run for the Presidency was his first political victory ever is important.  His lack of a background in politics was his greatest asset in his campaign and in the eyes of the Russian electorate.

Next: Consolidating power