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Book Review of "Putin's Russia" & "Russian Crossroads"

David Satter

Andrew Jack, Inside Putin’s Russia, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 362pp.
Yevgeny Primakov, Russian Crossroads, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004, 337pp.

One of the great disappointments of the post-Cold War world has been the lack of true democracy in Russia. There have been elections in Russia and the country is relatively free but what is absent is the rule of law. The result is that democracy is managed by the ruling elite and the population has only slightly more influence than it did in the days of the Soviet Union.

How Russia came to this state is the subject of two books; by Andrew Jack, the Moscow correspondent of the Financial Times, and Yevgeny Primakov, the former chief of Russian foreign intelligence and, from September, 1998 until June, 1999, the prime minister. Each author shows that the spirit of democracy is absent in Russia and, from their different perspectives – that of an outside observer and that of a government insider they both strongly suggest that despite the relatively tolerant atmosphere in Russia, if the time comes when Russian democracy can no longer be managed, repression is likely and all pretense of democratic rule will cease.

Jack’s book deals with the main issues in post-Soviet Russia the attitude toward the past, media freedom, Putin’s rise to power, the war in Chechnya, and the role of the oligarchs. In the process, he anatomizes the Russian regime’s corruption and repression but also describes the attempts made to lay the foundations for a functioning market economy, efforts that have contributed to the relative stability in Russia today.

In a chapter entitled, “The Man from Nowhere,” Jack shows that Putin made his career by being a good subordinate. As the deputy to Leningrad mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, Putin “shook hands and never said anything.” Nonetheless, his committee on international relations was effective in establishing ties with German businessmen. He later helped Sobchak to flee the country to escape corruption charges and probable arrest. Like others in the Sobchak administration, Putin was also accused of corruption and ties to organized crime but these charges against him were never proved.

Once he was transferred to Moscow and promoted to be head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Putin got another chance to prove his loyalty, this time to Yeltsin. Yuri Skuratov, the prosecutor general, had begun a corruption probe into Yeltsin’s closest associates. Shortly afterward, he was filmed, almost certainly by Putin’s FSB, having sex in a sauna with two prostitutes. The video was then shown on national television and Putin stated publicly that an expert analysis had established that the man in the video was Skuratov. As a result, Skuratov was forced to resign.

Jack gives considerable attention to the regime’s takeover of NTV, the most independent of the Russian television channels, by the state controlled energy company Gazprom. This is a story that has been told before but what makes Jack’s narrative particularly useful is that he describes the extent to which NTV was corrupt itself, supporting Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential campaign in return for tax breaks and broadcasting rights but breaking with him when a new government did not provide him with expected financial rewards.

In his chapter on the Caucasus, Jack provides valuable background to the Chechen conflict, describing, for example, the difficulty faced by Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov in maintaining order in newly independent Chechnya. But he also demonstrates what is possibly the greatest weakness of his book, a reluctance to draw conclusions. This is particularly evident in Jack’s treatment of the apartment building bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities in 1999, the events that supposedly persuaded Putin to invade Chechnya and start the Second Chechen War. Jack cites the evidence that the bombings were actually an FSB provocation particularly, the incident in Ryazan in which FSB agents were caught placing a bomb in the basement of an apartment building, and the fact that the rubble from the blown up buildings was quickly removed leaving no time for a detailed examination. But he offers no opinion as to where this evidence leads, writing instead that the conspiracy theories have their weaknesses and, with regard to the seemingly damning evidence of Ryazan, “It is possible — albeit difficult to believe — that Ryazan was a training exercise.”

Yevgeny Primakov also shows a reluctance to think the worst about the Russian leadership, at least, as far as Putin is concerned. In the first chapter of his memoir, he writes, “It is perfectly clear to me that Putin … is making his choices in favor of the civilized market, of enforcement of law binding on all, and of a resolute policy to preserve Russia’s territorial integrity… And all of this without introducing dictatorial rule.”

This statement, very early in Primakov’s narrative goes a long way to raising doubts about the rest of the book, not least because Primakov seems to be suggesting that to enforce the law seriously, you normally have to jettison democracy.

Primakov’s value as a witness is also called into question by his description of his years as the head of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO). Primakov argues that, in addition to the dissidents who were known in the West and openly fought against the repression of the Soviet regime, there were “inner dissidents” Soviet officials who struggled against the prevailing ideological dogmas and made a contribution to the regime’s demise.

It is certainly true that once a decision had been made to liberalize, there was no shortage of Soviet officials ready to reject the official dogma but while the totalitarian regime was in power, the attempts of liberal Soviet officials to mitigate the most extreme forms of ideological absurdity were insignificant compared to the service they rendered to the regime.

Also interesting is Primakov’s discussion of his period as the head of Russian foreign intelligence. He argues that the motives of those Westerners who worked for Russian intelligence — even Aldrich Ames — were rarely purely material whereas Russians who worked for Western intelligence did so out of vanity or personal weakness but never for reasons of ideology. In fact, nearly the opposite is true. After the first wave of Westerners who worked for the Soviet Union out of ideological conviction, it was material rewards that motivated Soviet agents whereas those Russians, like Adolph Tolkachev, who for years delivered to the United States invaluable information about the Soviet military and was caught and executed, did so out of conviction, asking little or nothing for themselves.

In his description of his work as Soviet foreign minister, Primakov depicts himself as tirelessly seeking to prevent unnecessary conflicts whether in 1991 at the time of the Gulf War or in 1999 over Kosovo. Whether he was really seeking peace or merely interfering with Western efforts to rein in Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, however, is open to debate. Under any circumstances, the matter won’t be settled by these memoirs because Primakov mainly describes his peregrinations without offering a reasonable explanation of what was happening in the countries concerned at the time.

After about 200 pages, Primakov comes to his eight months as prime minister of Russia. This is the most valuable part of the book. Primakov was trained as an economist and his description of the economic fate of Russia during the years of reform is lucid and interesting. Referring to the reformers’ insistence that it was necessary in Russia to exchange power for property, he writes, “the result was not giving up of power in exchange for property but a merging of state power with ownership, this time on a new, postcommunist basis.”

The resulting corruption led to economic collapse and social tension and necessitated borrowing from abroad that reinforced the existing economic deformities and made the whole country dependent on the largesse of the West.

Perhaps appropriately, Primakov took over as prime minister in the wake of the August, 1998 financial crisis. It is possible that there were few better persons in Russia to come to power at that time because despite the ideological strangeness of some of his pronouncements, Primakov does come across as, at least in money terms, an honest man. In his book, he describes the steps he took to try to stabilize the collapsing Russian economy, the settling of mutual debts, tax reform, and the introduction of state regulation of the sale of alcohol as well as the effect that this had on improving the economy and also increasing his personal popularity.

Unfortunately for Primakov, he also began to map out a drive against corruption, going so far as to pardon minor criminals to free space in the prisons for persons guilty of economic crimes. This brought him into direct conflict with the Yeltsin “family,” the group of oligarchs and relatives that manipulated an increasingly ill Yeltsin for their own ends. The result was that in June, 1999, eight months after taking office as prime minister, he was relieved of his position.

Primakov went on to become a political force in his own right, joining forces with Moscow mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, ironically, one of the most corrupt Russian political figures, in the Fatherland All Russia party that participated in the Russian parliamentary elections in December, 1999. Primakov’s party was roundly defeated by the newly formed Unity Party that was created to back the new prime minister, Vladimir Putin. One factor in the victory of Unity was a withering media campaign against Primakov and Luzhkov, that emphasized Primakov’s ill health on the one hand and Luzhkov’s criminal connections on the other. In its aftermath, Primakov gave up any idea of running for President and the “Yeltsin family” that had persecuted him was able to elevate Putin, its chosen candidate, to the presidency.

In all, Primakov offers new insights into the politics of the reform period in Russia. But the fact that Primakov came around, after all this, to supporting Putin is one of the mysteries of an otherwise frequently interesting and informative book.

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