The Case for Putin
Don't write off Russia's president.
Dec 22, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 15 • By LEWIS E. LEHRMAN
The strong showing of President Putin's party in the Duma elections--United Russia and its potential allies could have a two-thirds majority--should accelerate the reform of civil society. To be sure, there is much to criticize about the recent elections, and the media have reported the criticism, often quoting Communist party accusations, among others, of unfair play by Putin's party. Nevertheless, the Duma elections and the presidential election due in March 2004 will gradually reduce the anarchy and corruption in the Duma (known by some in Russia as the Durdon, or the nuthouse). The Russian nationalist parties' calls in the campaign for a fairer distribution of wealth and more equitable tax system are faint echoes of the post-World War II Democratic party. But the rhetoric of progressive taxation will not lead to a rollback of privatization. The more malignant, xenophobic rhetoric of the nationalists is to be deplored, but it is safe to predict that it will go nowhere with President Putin.
Above all, future historians will appraise the immediate past and the developments of the next five years in light of the disorder of the decade 1989-99. An overwrought media, curiously infatuated with Khodorkovsky--and before him, with the oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky--will gradually come round to acknowledging Putin's achievements.
A more seasoned Putin and a reformed administration and presidential staff, for their part, will prove to have learned much from the Khodorkovsky affair. More confident communication, more transparent legal processes, and better internal government coordination should enable Putin to handle major public debates with greater effectiveness. Khodorkovsky and the oligarchs, too, will have learned much about hubris--that there is no such lasting thing on earth as Prometheus unbound.
Finally, watch the losers in the recent elections. For unlike political losers in the Stalin era, they still have plenty of opportunity for success in Putin's Russia. As a victorious Putin himself remarked of the defeated candidates, "All their ideas, all their professional capabilities, if they decide to offer them to the government and society, will be put to good use."
Lewis E. Lehrman, co-chairman of the American Security Project, is a partner at L.E. Lehrman & Company, an investment firm that has investments in marketable Russian equities.