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Week of 21 January 2000

Vol. III, No. 20

Feature Article

BU's Russia experts cast wary eye on Putin

By Hope Green

New Russian Policy Allows First Strike. US-Russia Links Face the Unknown. Putin Cuts Most Ties to Yeltsin.

Igor Lukes Photo by Fred Sway

The unsettling headlines out of Moscow may indeed be cause for alarm. Yet when asked to comment on the rapid ascendancy of former KGB spy Vladimir Putin, Russia's acting president and the likely victor in the country's March election, experts at Boston University voice little surprise at his militant rhetoric or his huge popularity at home.

"Russia is starting to move toward a more autocratic regime," says Igor Lukes, UNI associate professor and CAS associate professor of international relations and history, "but paradoxically this is happening as a result of a democratic consensus. It's not happening because of a coup d'état. It's happening because the Russian public wants it."

Putin, appointed prime minister last August, became acting president when Boris Yeltsin abruptly resigned on December 31, and has garnered support from Russian liberals and conservatives alike.

According to Lukes, the Russian people respond to Putin's get-tough leadership style because they are disillusioned by the wave of corruption, drugs, and prostitution that seems to have correlated with economic reforms."The public's reaction is, let's go back to the old system where the guy on the white horse comes in and cleans up the show," Lukes says. Yet throughout Russian history, "the tragedy is that when they demand a tough leader, he always turns out to be so tough that he makes the country bleed. Russia remains in a mad cycle of violence, repression, and corruption, and so far I have not seen any positive signs that this cycle will be broken."

Michael Kort Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Michael Kort, CGS professor of social science, observes that democracy and an open free-market system cannot be expected to take root all of a sudden in a traditionally closed society. "With the exception of a few small-d democrats," says Kort, author of The Handbook of the Former Soviet Union and The Columbia Guide to the Cold War, "most politicians have not come through any system remotely similar to ours. They still don't have the fundamental laws and culture that would support free enterprise."

Uri Ra'anan, a University professor, CAS professor of international relations, and director of the Institute for Conflict, Ideology, and Policy, is especially concerned about Putin's KGB allegiances and his recent saber rattling toward the United States. He notes that Putin is one of three successive prime ministers associated with the brutal Russian security force, and that he held a public celebration honoring the 85th birthday of Yuri Andropov, general secretary of the Communist Party from 1982 until his death in 1984. As head of the KGB for 15 years, Andropov developed a reputation as the "Butcher of Budapest." Although the security force has been reorganized and renamed the Federal Security Service, says Ra'anan, "Putin's action amounts to stating, 'We are the same KGB.'

Uri Ra'anan Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

"The issue is not whether Putin is a reformer or not," Ra'anan adds. "What should bother us more is his militancy and hostility toward the West. For some reason, most Westerners bought the idea of a whole new Russia. They keep voicing the mantra 'Since the end of the Cold War . . .' This implies that Russia's current leadership does not pose a problem."

As Lukes points out, however, Russia has a strong financial incentive to maintain good relations with Europe and the United States. Russia has received enormous loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank -- although unfortunately, Lukes hastens to add, most of this money so far has been padding the pockets of a corrupt Russian elite.

"Historically," he says, "leaders in Russia are divided into two groups: Slavophiles such as Stalin and Ivan the Terrible, who viewed the West with suspicion, and Westernizers like Peter the Great and Yeltsin, who wanted to reach out to the West and learn from, and adapt to, our political and technological standards.

"The challenge for Russia right now," Lukes says, "is to find a government strong enough to stamp out the crime that comes with an open society, and at the same time maintain enough openness to become competitive in the marketplace. Living behind a Chinese wall doesn't make sense in a global economy."

While Putin will probably sail into office this March, Lukes, Kort, and Ra'anan agree that the Chechen conflict, though widely supported at the moment, poses a threat to his future popularity. "Russia has been fighting with Chechnya for 150 years, and Chechnya is a formidable enemy," says Kort. "The war has to be brought to an end that makes Putin look like he's achieved something. It can't drag on much longer without becoming a disaster from which he can't emerge."