The road to democracy — which many Americans expected to develop in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union — has taken a huge detour under Vladimir Putin.
If Mikhail Gorbachev pulled off a political miracle by encouraging the crush of communism. Boris Yeltsin, his successor, was a common drunk who made democracy seem like chaos to the Russian masses.
Such is the unsettling thesis of two perceptive journalists, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, a powerhouse married couple who spent four years presiding over the Moscow Bureau of the Washington Post. Their book is "Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution."
Baker and Glasser came to Moscow following useful experience covering crises in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Moscow they got in on the ground floor of the Putin presidency.
Ever since Yeltsin's retirement, the button-down, stone-cold Putin has talked about a return to autocratic rule — with virtually all the power going to Putin himself. "The question we kept asking," Glasser said, during a conference call interview from Washington, D.C., "is 'how can this be — Putin, this crude character from the KGB achieving easy popularity?'
"But you find the KGB means an entirely different thing to Russians than it does to us. Among Russians, it signifies belonging to an elite group in society. It is almost like the Harvard of the Soviet Union. Besides, Russians notice that Putin, unlike Yeltsin, is sober. He's relatively young and articulate, modern-looking — and he speaks a foreign language."
Baker asserted that the comparison of Yeltsin and Putin cannot be emphasized enough. "We try not to be forecasters, but countries go through extraordinary ups and downs. Is democracy already dead in Russia? I wouldn't say that, but Yeltsin was not a paragon of Soviet democracy either. He allowed brutality and favored profits for the few at the expense of the many. Yet still he tried to move toward a more pluralistic society. Now, clearly, Putin is headed in the opposite direction."
Since assuming the presidency, Putin has promoted what he calls "managed democracy," a term the correspondents belittle. "Managed democracy is all about managing," Glasser said. "Its architect is Alexander Voloshin, Putin's chief of staff. He has a jaded view of the Russian public. Basically, it eliminated the institutions needed to create anything even resembling a democracy. We saw the creation of an entire fake opposition party, a managed one."
Americans don't generally understand that Putin controls all television, he is getting a tighter and tighter hold on newspapers, and he has emasculated Parliament.
Soon after the Beslan crisis, when an elementary school in southern Russia was occupied by opponents of the Chechnyan war and 1,200 people were taken hostage, Putin waited 24 hours before making any comment at all. Then, after numerous deaths, he reacted by canceling the election of all governors. He would instead appoint them, he said, as a strong symbol of the rejection of terrorism.
Chechnya, a segment of the former Soviet Union, has been at war with Russia for a decade, and 80,000 Russian troops remain there. In the opinion of the authors, Chechnya is to Putin what Vietnam was to Lyndon Johnson, who was eventually forced from office due to the lingering discontent with that war. "When you ask Putin about democracy," Baker said, "he says he's for it. 'But if you mean dissolution of the state, we don't want that kind of democracy.' He thinks democracy is chaos as symbolized by Russian life in the '90s."
Although critics of democracy for Russia readily point to the surge of corruption, Glasser thinks the Soviet Union "already had internal rot. Today's corruption comes out of Soviet times." Baker added, "You can't drive around Moscow without running into corruption on a daily basis, with cops stopping you and demanding bribes. Everything is about some sort of payoff. It extends through the whole system. But that was true long before democracy came along."
That said, Baker and Glasser think Putin is "genuinely popular" at home. According to Glasser, "Putin is very good in a lot of different settings. Peter and I have been in his presence several times, and he acts like a cold fish, but he is very well-prepared. He has memorized the briefing book. Some Soviet hands have been almost dazzled."
Once a session between Putin and the press gets going it can continue for as long as four hours. "Yet communism with a capital C is dead," Baker said, "and Putin is not a communist. His biggest liability is his identification with the Soviet system. He wants to restore Soviet power.
"He has restored the national anthem, put the red star back up, and he uses KGB techniques. You don't have to be worried about being arrested anymore for criticizing political leaders on the street, but no rival power or influence is allowed to exist."
Glasser said that Putin's pollster compares Russia to a river. "You only swim against the current for so long. Gorbachev and Yeltsin swam against the current. Not Putin."
So it's clear, Baker said, that "Putin is not Stalin or Lenin. He's not radically redefining his country the way Lenin and Stalin were. He's not a reformer like Gorbachev. Putin is the reaction. He's the counter-revolution. He will be remembered as the person who stopped the democratic trend."