Twenty years ago a not very well-known Vladimir Putin published an essay “Russia at the turn of the millennium”. It was printed in Nezavisimaya Gazeta and at the Russian government website. The only copy that I can find on the Net in English now is here but I will be referring to the official English translation and Russian text that I downloaded at the time.
Putin had been Prime Minister for about five months and, when Yeltsin resigned the day after the publication of this essay, he became Acting President. Since that day his team has been running Russia. It is reasonable to regard this essay as his program and, on its twenty-year anniversary, appropriate to see how well he (and his team – it’s not a one-man operation) have done.
I concluded that he outlined four main projects:
- Improve the economy.
- Re-establish central control.
- Establish a rule of law.
- Improve Russia’s position in the world.
Putin took power at a time when people were seriously saying Russia is Finished. And, however silly this may look now when we are hysterically told every day that “Putin’s Russia” is infiltrating, controlling, interfering, attacking, hacking, conquering, violating, cheating it is worth running over what the author said. Assassinations, mafia, corruption, kryshas, oligarchs, unpaid salaries, military collapse: “the Russians are likely to face a long, slow, relatively peaceful decline into obscurity – a process that is well under way”. The author acknowledged the changing of the guard – the piece was published in May 2000 – but believed Putin was picked only because he had the “security connections to protect” Yeltsin’s entourage; he was just another centraliser building a personality cult in “Zaire With Permafrost.”
The author – like almost everyone else – got Putin wrong but generally he was describing the reality of Russia in 2000. It was a mess. In Putin’s own words last June:
But I must note that during that time our social sphere, industry and the defence sector collapsed. We lost the defence industry, we practically destroyed the Armed Forces, led the country into a civil war, to bloodshed in the Caucasus, and brought the country to the verge of losing sovereignty and collapse.
As far as I know, most Western intelligence agencies (but not the one I was involved with) would have agreed with his prediction that Russia was, inevitably, going down to “obscurity”. The fear then was of chaos – rogue generals, nuclear weapons gone missing (remember suitcase nukes, “red mercury“?): Russia’s weakness was the threat, not its strength. We appreciated how badly off Russia was but also knew that Russia in its thousand years has often been down but never out. We also knew that there was more to Putin than the absurdities that were said about him of which I especially remember this:
In my group we took note that he had been the trusted disciple of Anatoliy Sobchak who was, in the terminology of the time, a “reformer” and therefore a “good Russian”. We had also read the millennium paper and saw the program. I am not pretending that, in 1999, I or my colleagues expected him to do all this but at least we saw the possibilities. We, as it were, saw a half full glass where others saw a glass quickly emptying.
He and his team were trying to make Russia prosperous, united, law-governed and internationally significant. A formidable program from the perspective of 1999 to be sure. How well have they done?
Taking the economy first. One of the famous quotations from the millennium paper was this:
It will take us approximately fifteen years and an annual growth of our Gross Domestic Product by 8 percent a year to reach the per capita GDP level of present-day Portugal or Spain.
That mission has been accomplished and much more than merely accomplished. According to the World Bank Russia’s GDP in purchasing power parity in 2018 (4.0 billion) was nearly 12 times as high as Portugal’s (339 million) and twice Spain’s (1.8 billion). It was in fact larger than France’s (3.0 billion) or the UK’s (3.0 billion), two other countries he mentioned. (By comparison, China 25 billion and USA 20 billion). Valuations of Russia’s GDP in US dollars contradict reality: as I have argued elsewhere, Russia’s economy is in fact full-service and it is one of four potential autarkies on the planet. And, the way things are going, it won’t become any less so: as Awara points out it is one of the most independent economies in the world, well positioned to survive a world recession. While individual Russians could certainly be richer, the improvement from the desperate situation in 2000 is extraordinary. Ironically, Western sanctions (and Moscow’s adroit response) have strengthened the Russian economy; as Putin said in his last direct line program:
Look, if ten years ago I or anyone else in this hall had been told that we would be exporting agricultural products worth $25.7 billion, like we did last year, I would have laughed in the face of the person who said this.
An outstanding success.
The second point was re-centralising power. In 2000 there were concerns that the federation might break up: the CIA in 2004 (has there ever been an organisation with a worse track record of Russia predictions?) thought it could break into as many as eight different parts by 2015. Many of the “subjects of the federation” had negotiated sovereignty pacts with Moscow and, as of 2000, Chechnya was effectively independent. So, in fact, the CIA’s prediction was not, of itself, idiotic but it assumed a temporary weakness to be a permanent condition: a longer view of Russia’s track record shows weak periods but it always comes back. As Putin said in the millennium paper:
For Russians a strong state is not an anomaly which should be got rid of. Quite the contrary, they see it as a source and guarantor of order and the initiator and main driving force of any change.
Russia is a civilisation state – President Macron’s expression – Europe by contrast has always been a series of (quarrelling) independent states. For much of the time, the state – the King’s power – was something to be resisted or limited. Russia, on the other hand, during its “prey-fish” period, learned to value the state as the guarantor of its existence. And so, to Russians, state power is much more important than it is to most Europeans. Western commentators have to understand this or else they look like fools to Russians: Russians think centralisation is good, they respect state power, not slavishly as Western prejudice would have it, but because Russia has fought for its existence too many times for them to want to risk anarchy. Putin and his team have re-established state power; that someone like David Satter thinks Putin is a dictator or the Western media calls his elections fake, matters nothing to Russians. Russia exists again and it’s full of Russians. A rather interesting illustration can be seen in this video when the Chechen MP in Syria says we are all Russians. The Russian language has two words that would be translated as “Russian”: one for ethnic Russians, the other for citizens of the country. A Chechen can’t be the first (and wouldn’t want to be) but he can be proud of being the second. Again, we have to agree that the Putin Team achieved its second aim.
The third aim was rule of law. And here assessment is on more uncertain grounds. The first question to ask is whether any country actually does have a “rule of law”. Britain is holding Assange in jail on rape charges jumping bail… what charges? What exactly did Maria Butina do? Why did Canada seize a Chinese executive? Whataboutism they call this but it establishes the base of reality – all countries have corruption, all countries have one law for the powerful and another for the weak; it’s not absolute, it’s a matter of degree. Certainly, by any standards, twenty years ago Russia was very lawless; how lawless is it today and how successful has the Team been? I don’t know know of any good study on the matter – I don’t take Transparency International seriously: Ukraine less corrupt than Russia? – but it does appear that things are much better than they were. Certainly we hear very little about businesses needing criminals’ protection today and Russia’s ranking on ease of doing business is continually improving and is respectable today. This guide indicates some remaining problems but generally assumes that it’s possible for foreigners to do business there as does this guide. Recently we learned that “Nearly one in six Russian mayors have faced criminal prosecution over the past decade” which is either evidence of a lot of corruption or a lot of success combatting it. The construction of a new cosmodrome has involved much theft but other mega projects – like the Crimea Bridge or the new Moscow-St Petersburg highway – seem to have been carried out with little. A balanced (and sourced) piece argues that there has been considerable improvement in the rights of the accused in the twenty years. But a frequent complaint in Putin’s Q&A sessions are over-zealous officials destroying businesses – perhaps for venal purposes. So a cautious conclusion would suggest that the two decades have seen a reduction in criminality and an improvement in rule of law. How much of each is debatable and the argument is not helped by tendentious pieces asserting that the imitation of the American foreign agents law was “a landmark on the journey towards the end of the rule of law in modern-day Russia.” So some success in this aim but some distance to go still.
The fourth aim was to improve Russia’s standing in the world. Here another enormous turnaround is seen – even if not much to the liking of those who ruled the world in 2000. There’s no need to spell it out – despite the West’s efforts to isolate and weaken Russia, Putin is a welcome visitor in many places. The delirium over Russia’s imagined influence and control proves that it is hardly “decline[d] into obscurity”. Moscow’s status is, of course, especially recognised in Beijing where the Russia-China alliance grows stronger day by day. When we see the NYT, after years of “Trump and Putin: A Love Story“, solemnly opining “President Trump is correct to try to establish a sounder relationship with Russia and peel it away from China” or President Macron suggesting that Russia shouldn’t want to be “a minority ally of China” we see the belated realisation that twenty years’ of pushing around an “insignificant” Russia has not turned out so happily for the pushers. The NYT and Macron are too late: why would Moscow or Beijing ever trust the West again? Meanwhile Moscow manages to have, for example, good relations with Iran, Iraq and Syria as well as with Saudi Arabia and Israel; quite a contrast with Washington and much of the West.
So, in conclusion, twenty years later the program has been very successful.
Improve economy? Yes, dramatically, extra marks.
Re-centralise control? Yes, full marks.
Rule of law? Considerable progress, part marks.
Improve Russia’s role in the world? Yes, dramatically, extra marks.
The West resents this achievement and has been in an economic (sanctions) and diplomatic (ditto) war with Russia. But, many would argue, that the only Russia the West has ever liked is a weak one (except, of course, in times of war against Napoleon, the Kaiser or Hitler); enmity is a given and the only way the West would like Russia would be if the Putin Team had failed and it had remained, poor, divided, lawless and insignificant.
A remarkably successful achievement; not accomplished by accident or luck: a good plan, intelligently and flexibly carried out.
As an afterword, given the repetitive scare stories about the return of Stalin, here’s what Putin said about the Soviet period (Note: this is the official English translation; it takes some liberties with the original but is true to the spirit).
For almost three-fourths of the outgoing century Russia lived under the sign of the implementation of the communist doctrine. It would be a mistake not to see and, even more so, to deny the unquestionable achievements of those times. But it would be an even bigger mistake not to realise the outrageous price our country and its people had to pay for that Bolshevist experiment. What is more, it would be a mistake not to understand its historic futility. Communism and the power of Soviets did not make Russia a prosperous country with a dynamically developing society and free people. Communism vividly demonstrated its inaptitude for sound self-development, dooming our country to a steady lag behind economically advanced countries. It was a road to a blind alley, which is far away from the mainstream of civilisation.
Hardly an endorsement is it?
Patrick Armstrong was an analyst in the Canadian Department of National Defence specialising in the USSR/Russia from 1984 and a Counsellor in the Canadian Embassy in Moscow in 1993-1996. He retired in 2008 and has been writing on Russia and related subjects on the Net ever since.
Originally published in Strategic Culture online journal. The views of individual contributors do not necessarily represent those of the Strategic Culture Foundation.
Image shows Vladimir Putin at the opening of a friendly, night-time hockey match on 25 December 2019. (c) Kremlin.ru