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.
"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."
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.'
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."