Mon, May 27, 2002 - Page 9 News List

Putin walks the power tightrope

Although Russia's elite are disgruntled with their president's foreign policy and may seek to obstruct his progress, Putin still has the support of the people

By Nina Khrushcheva

No man is an island, the poet John Donne said. If he is well briefed for his summit in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, US President George W. Bush should discount Donne's wisdom. For within Russia, President Vladimir Putin does appear to be an isolated island, at least among the Russian elite who have singularly failed to embrace his decision to anchor Russia firmly to the West.

The elite's gripes about Putin's foreign policy are many, but they center mostly on the notion that the US is running roughshod over Russian interests. US troops, they complain, are on the ground in the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Kyrgizstan, Tadjikistan, and Uzbekistan. The next wave of NATO expansion promises to lap onto Russia's border and indeed surpass the old Soviet borders by taking in the Baltic states. Foreign investment has scarcely increased.

Putin, they allege, has surrendered Russia' traditional notions of security and received nothing from the West in return. The crimes they attribute to Putin sound like the indictment for a treason trial. After making his bold moves towards the West after Sept. 11, Putin undoubtedly expected to receive praise and favors in return. Of course, the West's ingratitude has been marked: the US withdrew from the 1972 ABM Treaty and has now rammed a vague disarmament agreement -- to be signed during the summit and which will allow the US not to destroy surplus missiles and warheads but rather to put them in cold storage -- down Putin's throat.

Even Putin's Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB colleague and a man often considered to be Putin's closest adviser within his government, does not fully agree with him on the terms of collaboration with the US. If the Russian-Western alliance fails to bring tangible benefits to Russia soon, there is a growing fear that the loss of confidence in Putin may weaken him fatally.

There is an eerie sense of deja vu in all this. Khrushchev, Gorbachev and Yeltsin all saw their hold on power undermined when they sought to please or placate the West only to receive nothing in return. Weakened by the perception of allowing the West to mistreat Russia, their influence among Russia's ruling elite disintegrated.

But there is a critical difference between the Russia of today and even Yeltsin's early postcommunist Russia. Under Khrushchev and Gorbachev (and also Yeltsin), Russia was an autocratic society in which control of the elite was the key to power. Civil society didn't exist. Only the power bureaucracy mattered. The faceless mass was just that: faceless and powerless. Public opinion didn't matter; it didn't even exist.

That elite, the old politburo nomenclature, was united by homogenized opinions. You kept power by sticking together in thought and word and deed. Change was anathema, risk to be avoided at all costs. Better to stick to a tried and failed policy than to upset the apple cart, even if the apples were rotten.

Today's Russia is no longer a two-tier society. It is a society with a diversity of opinions, options, opportunities and interest groups.Democracy, every Westerner will tell you, is not founded on what the elite think; it's what the people think that matters -- or at least what a contending rabble of rival interests think.

But the most important thing is that people are free to think, which Russia's people undoubtedly are now free to do. What they think is that Vladimir Putin is looking after Russian interests, which now include being an unconditional part of the West.

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