Russia has entered election season, with parliamentary elections in December and presidential elections in March 2012. Typically, this is not an issue of concern, as most Russian elections have been designed to usher a chosen candidate and political party into office since 2000. Interesting shifts are under way this election season, however. While on the surface they may resemble political squabbles and instability, they actually represent the next step in the Russian leadership's consolidation of the state.
In the past decade, one person has consolidated and run Russia's political system: former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Putin's ascension to the leadership of the Kremlin marked the start of the reconsolidation of the Russian state after the decade of chaos that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. Under Putin's presidential predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, Russia's strategic economic assets were pillaged, the core strength of the country - the KGB, now known as the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the military - fell into decay, and the political system was in disarray. Though Russia was considered a democracy and a new friend to the West, this was only because Russia had no other option - it was a broken country.
Perceptions of Putin
Putin's goal was to fix the country, which meant restoring state control (politically, socially and economically), strengthening the FSB and military and re-establishing Russia's influence and international reputation - especially in the former Soviet sphere of influence. To do so, Putin had to carry Russia through a complex evolution that involved shifting the country from accommodating to aggressive at specific moments. This led to a shift in global perceptions of Putin, with many beginning to see the former KGB agent as a hard-nosed autocrat set upon rekindling hostilities and renewing militarization.
This perception of Putin is not quite correct. While an autocrat and KGB agent (we use the present tense, as Putin has said that no one is a former KGB or FSB agent), he hails from St. Petersburg, Russia's most pro-Western city, and during his Soviet-era KGB service he was tasked with stealing Western technology. Putin fully understands the strength of the West and what Western expertise is needed to keep Russia relatively modern and strong. At the same time, his time with the KGB convinced him that Russia can never truly be integrated into the West and that it can be strong only with a consolidated government, economy and security service and a single, autocratic leader.
Putin's understanding of Russia's two great weaknesses informs this worldview. The first weakness is that Russia was dealt a poor geographic hand. It is inherently vulnerable because it is surrounded by great powers from which it is not insulated by geographic barriers. The second is that its population is comprised of numerous ethnic groups, not all of which are happy with centralized Kremlin rule. A strong hand is the only means to consolidate the country internally while repelling outsiders.
Another major challenge is that Russia essentially lacks an economic base aside from energy. Its grossly underdeveloped transportation system hampers it from moving basic necessities between the country's widely dispersed economic centers. This has led Moscow to rely on revenue from one source, energy, while the rest of the country's economy has lagged decades behind in technology.
These geographic, demographic and economic challenges have led Russia to shift between being aggressive to keep the country secure and being accommodating toward foreign powers in a bid to modernize Russia.
Being from groups that understood these challenges, Putin knew a balance between these two strategies was necessary. However, Russia cannot go down the two paths of accommodating and connecting with the West and a consolidated authoritarian Russia at the same time unless Russia is first strong and secure as a country, something that has only happened recently. Until then, Russia must switch between each path to build the country up - which explains shifting public perceptions of Putin over the past decade from pro-Western president to an aggressive authoritarian. It also explains the recent view of Putin's successor as president, Dmitri Medvedev, as democratic and agreeable when compared to Putin.
Neither leader is one or the other, however: Both have had their times of being aggressive and accommodating in their domestic and foreign policies. Which face they show does not depend upon personalities but rather upon the status of Russia's strength.
Putin, who had no choice but to appeal to the West to help keep the country afloat when he took office in 2000, initially was hailed as a trusted partner by the West. But even while former U.S. President George W. Bush was praising Putin's soul, behind the scenes, Putin already was reorganizing one of his greatest tools - the FSB - in order to start implementing a full state consolidation in the coming years.
After 9/11, Putin was the first foreign leader to phone Bush and offer any assistance from Russia. The date marked an opportunity for both Putin and Russia. The attacks on the United States shifted Washington's focus, tying it down in the Islamic world for the next decade. This gave Russia a window of opportunity with which to accelerate its crackdown inside (and later outside) Russia without fear of a Western response. During this time, the Kremlin ejected foreign firms, nationalized strategic economic assets, shut down nongovernmental organizations, purged anti-Kremlin journalists, banned many anti-Kremlin political parties and launched a second intense war in Chechnya. Western perceptions of Putin's friendship and standing as a democratic leader simultaneously evaporated.
Russia was already solidifying its strength by 2003, by which time the West had noticed its former enemy's resurgence. The West subsequently initiated a series of moves not to weaken Russia internally (as this was too difficult by now) but to contain Russian power inside its own borders. This spawned a highly contentious period between both sides during which the West supported pro-Western color revolutions in several of the former Soviet states while Russia initiated social unrest and political chaos campaigns in, and energy cutoffs against, several of the same states. The two sides were once again seriously at odds, with the former Soviet sphere now the battlefield. As it is easier for Russia to maneuver within the former Soviet states and with the West pre-occupied in the Islamic world, Moscow began to gain the upper hand. By 2008, the Kremlin was ready to prove to these states that the West would not be able to counter Russian aggression.
By now, however, the Kremlin had a new president, Medvedev. Like Putin, Medvedev is also from the St. Petersburg clan. Unlike Putin, he was lawyer trained to Western standards, not member of the KGB. Medvedev's entrance into the Kremlin seemed strange at the time, since Putin had groomed other potential successors who shared his KGB background. Putin, however, knew that in just a few years Russia would be shifting again from being solely aggressive to a new stance that would require a different sort of leader.