MOSCOW - The reality of our lives in Russia is that the beginning of the 21st century is being dominated by the political leadership of Vladimir Putin.
But it is perfectly obvious that the next couple of years will be the most difficult, and for Russian society these years will be the most important.
If the first years of the new century were primarily about trying to get the bad taste of the 1980s and 1990s out of our society, now the focus has shifted towards creating new ways to think about the new Russia. And it’s clear that the person who will decide whether or not that it is successful is the very figure perched at the peak of political power.
In this context, how is it possible to evaluate Putin as a private person? What makes him act one way and not another? What is his system of values?
The answers to these questions are important because the overwhelming majority of Russians understand Putin on an emotional level, even though they barely understand the path he is leading us down.
In a recent poll, 90 percent of Russian citizens were not able to answer the question “Do you have an idea where the country is going and what goals the country’s leaders have?” That is sad, because the country has an extraordinary leader in Putin.
It’s not so often that the leader of our country could be called a political realist. He started his career by stating in clear terms that Russia would not find a clear model of success in the Western world; and that instead, Russia should seek to create a society that agreed on basic, key issues that are important for the future of the country.
To understand the Russian president today, it is useful to read the key points from an essay he wrote just as Boris Yeltsin stepped down, which addresses his thoughts on Russia’s place in the new millennium. Here is a basic outline of what Putin thought were the keys to a successful society in Russia:
∙First of all, the rule of law, enforced in a fair and predictable way, is essential to both the democratic and economic development of the country.
∙Second, Russia has already reached its limit for radical changes, revolutions, political earthquakes and economic catastrophes. The country needs stability.
∙Third, if political transformations lead to political stability and do not make any part of the living conditions for regular citizens worse, they can be counted as successes.
∙Fourth, the key to Russia’s resurrection is in the public-political sphere. Only a strong, united government can provide peace, stability and safety for the public.
∙Fifth, people who say that “Russia needs a strong governmental power and should have one” are not asking for a totalitarian system. History has shown that totalitarian regimes and dictators are ephemeral. Only democratic systems are both effective and long-lived. Russia’s strong government should be democratic, just and capable.
∙Sixth, it will take time for the new system to take root in Russia. Society should be prepared for a long and difficult task.
∙Lastly, Russia’s transition to a new system, based on the values and institutions of liberalism, democracy, freedom and the market cannot and should not be the goal in and of itself. The reality is that the government has to be part of this process, as a regulator, based on the principle that the government should be as present as necessary, just as freedom is present as much as necessary.
Over the course of the last 12 years, Putin has returned, over and over again, to the fundamental problem of the conception of the country’s transformation. According to Putin, the new Russia should rise from the ideology of a ‘united historical process,’ finding a connection between modern and historical Russia as a way to build a united nation.
He feels he is the heir of the contradictory, tragic, but great history of Russia. As part of that heritage, Putin feels that the best way to solve the people’s problems is through mobilization of civil society.
In his essay on the future of Russia, written on the eve of his own ascension to power, which coincided more or less with the dawn of the new millennium, Putin wrote, “Our goals are unchanged. They are: the democratic development of Russia, the creation of a civilized market, and a just government. And most importantly, an increase in the standard of living of our people.”
Over the years, time and time again goals have been met through the mobilization of civil society, to solve the problems of our people. These movements have dominated throughout our history, from the beginning of the Russian nation in the Middle Ages through to the Soviet Union.
Today, Putin’s most important task should be to create the right conditions so that these civil society structures can develop organically. The country can create a lasting democracy only if it is able to develop and reproduce this process successfully. Putin and his team should be doing everything they can to make sure that our descendants do not have to mobilize constantly to protect themselves and their nation. That is a model that has served us well in the past, but is not up to the task of creating the future we deserve.
*Leonid Openkin is a political historian.