The News from Moscow

I’ve written before about my admiration for Fred Weir, Moscow correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor.  A third-generation Canadian Communist Party legatee, Weir is a modern-day John Reed in reverse. Having gone to the USSR in the 1980s to see what perestroika was all about, he married a Russian-Armenian woman and settled down in Moscow to raise a family. His 1997 book, Revolution from Above: The Demise of the Soviet System, with David Kotz, of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, remains a reliable guide, as valuable as it is expensive, to much of what was happening to Russian’s power structure in the 1990s.  (The book was updated in 2007 as Russia’s Path from Gorbachev to Putin: The Demise of the Soviet System and the New Russia and costs even more).

Weir might be considered a Bernie Sanders-style progressive were he reporting on the American political scene, but his dispatches from Moscow about Russia seem middle-of-the-road – balanced, uninflected, extensively reported and deeply informed.  So when Vladimir Putin earlier this month replaced most of his cabinet and announced a series of constitutional changed he planned to pursue, it was to Weir’s account that I turned.

To begin with, Weir wrote in “Why Putin’s political shakeup isn’t just about power,” it had become very clear that that Russia’s long-term leader had no intention of retiring altogether, at least not any time soon.

But for many Russians, the changes proposed also come with a glimmer of hope that a peaceful transition from one leader to the next may be possible – something that has traditionally been fraught with instability and intra-elite conflict over Russian history. And while the constitutional change will ensure Mr. Putin’s continued influence, it opens the door to a Russia ruled by representative government, rather than autocrat.

The new measures, Weir noted, would close the loophole that enabled Putin to reclaim the presidency for a second helping of two consecutive terms (2000-2008 ad 2012-2024). They would weaken the powerful office of the presidency, which was greatly enhanced after an attempted coup in 1993, returning significant powers to the two houses of Parliament.  And they would elevate the State Council, a heretofore powerless advisory board, to a central policy-making role, in charge of the nation’s internal security forces among other things. Putin’s proposals are expected to be ratified by a nationwide referendum later this year.

Thus, wrote Weir. “[O]ne of three basis options that have been under active discussion for the past year” now seems certain to be implemented when Putin’s current (fourth) presidential term expires, in 2024. At 72, he could again take the job of prime minister, as he did for four years before replacing hand-picked one-term president Dimitry Medvedev in 2012. He could head the new State Council. Or, if he succeeds in badgering next-door Belarus into rejoining the Russian Federation, he might assume leadership of a whole new state, under a new constitution.

Weir quoted Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a veteran observer of shifting Kremlin elites:

What matters is not who will be the next president, but where Putin will go. Whatever post Putin takes up, that’s where the center of power will be, at least in the beginning. First the new president will have to work in tandem with Putin. But gradually, Putin may disengage.

And Sergei Markov, a former Putin adviser:

Putin aims to change Russia’s governing system from that of an extraordinary situation to one that is more ordinary. We needed extraordinary measures following the catastrophic 1990s, when, under Boris Yeltsin, Russian statehood was nearly destroyed.  Russia needed strong personal rule, a kind of dictatorship like Charles de Gaulle imposed in France [when the Fourth Republic collapsed] because the country needed to be saved. This has been accomplished [here]… Russia is strong and stable again. We can move to a more ordinary system, phase out personal power, and ensure a greater distribution of power.

I wasn’t surprised when a few day later Weir took to his Facebook page to reflect on the reaction to his account. (I know this thanks to Johnson’s Russia List; for one reason or another, the Facebook posting has been removed.)

I got a fair bit of response to my story about Putin, much of it scolding and negative. I really don’t know why even suggesting that something Putin did might have mixed or ambivalent consequences elicits such huffy and near-universal indignation? Why must we take this tone instead of calm, measured, long-term analysis? No, it always has to be malign catastrophe! Total power grab! Has he no shame?. . .

But even the most cursory survey of the Putin era will affirm that it’s been a very mixed time for Russia and Russians, with a lot of positive change happening in an evolutionary way. What is the point of sternly refusing to acknowledge the complexities? Is there some special virtue in insisting on getting Russia wrong, again?

Anyone who follows the mainstream media in the United States is familiar with the condescension with which Russia is treated.  “Putin the Immortal,” headlined an item on the editorial page of The New York Times last week. “Old autocrats rarely resign, nor do they just fade away,” the commentary began.  What might be the advantage of obtaining the State Council position, through which the ex-president could continue to control affairs from behind the scenes?  He could blame the prime minister for whatever might go wrong and blame Parliament for having appointed the prime minister. “Staying off the main stage would also allow Mr. Putin to reduce his workload and enjoy his many billions.”

Here is a very different interpretation, by John Dizard, of the Financial Times. 

Why has the American press become so reflexively censorious of the United States’ former rival? My conviction, that the unexpected end of the fifty-year Cold War caused the US to lose self-control, has been buttressed by the appearance this month of The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory (Metropolitan, 2020, by Andrew Bacevich.

This is the seventh book since 2005 by the former commander of the U.S. Army’s 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, there to defend Germany’s Fulda Gap against the possibility of a Soviet invasion. Perhaps it is Bacevich’s best, for zeroing in on the years since 1946, the year of his birth, which also happens to have seen the beginnings of the  the Cold War epoch.

Today. Bacevich is professor of history emeritus at Boston University and president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, an undertaking jointly funded at its outset by political philanthropists George Soros and Charles Koch. Nobody has been more salient than Bacevich as a critic of the conceit of a “unipolar world” and “American exceptionalism.” How successful has he been? We won’t know the answer until the next Democratic administration is sworn in.

.                      xxx

New on the EP bookshelf:

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, by Anand Giridharadas (Vintage, 2018)

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