'Putinism' and the war in Chechnya


By Boris Kagarlitsky

MOSCOW — While continuing its war in the Caucasus, Russia is due later in December to elect the national parliament. Few people show much interest in the elections. The numerous parties and blocs have had trouble scraping together money for the campaign, since everyone is convinced that, before long, the parliament will not be permitted to play even the miserable role it has now.

Opinion polls cannot be given much credence, especially since their results differ wildly. According to the pro-Kremlin channel 2, early in October the Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) bloc founded by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov enjoyed the support of no more than 9% of voters. Meanwhile, channel NTV, which is close to Luzhkov, put the figure at more than 15%. According to channel 2, the Zhirinovsky bloc will cross the 5% barrier needed for representation in the Duma, while NTV gives Zhirinovsky no chance.

In third place is the Yabloko bloc, and in fourth place Medved ("Bear"), founded on the initiative of the Kremlin. The latter will attract about 6% in the view of channel 2 analysts, and as much as 10% according to NTV.

The surveys agree on only two points: the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) is supported by about 21% of voters, and the Union of Right-wing Forces (SPS) by more than 5%. The SPS rating is clearly exaggerated.


The only party which cannot hope to strengthen its position by attracting the votes of undecided electors is the KPRF. It is not even campaigning with the aim of winning new votes.

The KPRF's strategy is based totally on the hope of once again winning a massive bloc of seats by relying on the nostalgic pensioner electorate. This time, however, the strategy will most likely fail.

So long as the KPRF held a monopoly as the only national opposition party, the only parliamentary left party and the only all-Russian nationalist grouping, its contradictions did not lead to its collapse.

But the situation is changing. For some time now, all politicians in Russia have been nationalists. The Kremlin these days speaks of nothing but the national interest, and the war in Chechnya is a sort of proof of the seriousness of this new program of the authorities.

Daily, the press reports rises in the rating of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Some 47% of Russians are now supposed to give him their support. Serious sociologists can only raise their hands in despair.

It is true that the premier's popularity is increasing, but at a quite different tempo. The myth of universal popular support for the war is not backed up by research either. There is hostility to the war and, moreover, it is gradually increasing.

The "political class" and the press, however, are afraid to speak out in criticism of the government. Any critical word directed at the premier or the military operations is perceived as betrayal of Russian national interests, as a knife in the back of the Russian soldiers who are fighting in Chechnya for our peace and security, a commentator for the newspaper Tribuna notes.

To a considerable degree, the protests by Western politicians over the war have also worked to Putin's advantage. After the support the authorities in the US and Western Europe gave to Yeltsin's 1993 coup, after their support over many years for a bandit civilisation here, and after what they have done in the Balkans, there are few people left in Russia who feel any sympathy for Western politicians.

All the talk about "concern" about Chechnya is pure demagogy. At the European summit in Istanbul, Western leaders, after rebuking Yeltsin for genocide, included in their summary declaration a point about Chechnya the formulations of which were dictated by the Russian delegation. The Kremlin authorities were quite right to interpret what happened as support for the Kremlin's policies.


So that no doubts should remain, President Clinton personally delivered a speech in which he called on people to understand the Russian leaders and to solidarise with them in the struggle against "international terrorism".

The main evidence for a "terrorist threat" has been the blowing up of residential buildings in Moscow. No-one has demonstrated any link between these explosions and Chechnya, while reports in the Russian press point to voluminous evidence that the Kremlin elite and the Russian security forces are complicit in the explosions.

The latest scandal was the capture of agents of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in the act of placing explosives beneath a residential building in the city of Ryazan. Caught red-handed, the FSB agents explained that they had wanted to test the vigilance of the residents. A practical joke, so to speak.

The longer the war continues, the less enthusiasm it arouses among the population. Reports are seeping through of Russian soldiers dying in whole platoons, and of Chechen military operations far in the rear of the federal forces. On November 28 Chechen fighters easily captured the settlement of Novogroznensky, in the "security zone" proclaimed by the army.

The worse things become at the front, the greater the enthusiasm shown by the politicians. The KPRF leadership recognises that it is losing influence, but continues to drift with the current, having totally lost the political initiative. Gennady Zyuganov is confident that the bulk of his supporters will nevertheless stay with him, and that the KPRF will maintain its position as one of the leading parties.

If the number of votes cast for the party do not fall significantly, that could be presented as a decisive success. But whatever happens, Duma positions will still be lost, and together with them, the KPRF's former political influence.

A split in the party has become a real prospect. There is no political unity, since there is no longer either a political strategy or even a distinct ideology. It is not even excluded that someone among the Communists will recall that Lenin did not give the tsarist government the slightest support during wartime.

On a white horse?

Such an election result corresponds perfectly to the scenario put forward by Berezovsky and the section of the Kremlin "family" that has put its stake on Putin. Divided and without a clear majority, the Duma will become even weaker. The position of the prime minister will grow even stronger. No-one will dare to criticise or argue with the government.

Censorship of the television is becoming a fact of life, and, deprived of sponsors, the independent press is gradually dying. Luzhkov still has Moscow, but has no chance of attaining the Kremlin.

Events will culminate in July with Putin entering the Kremlin "on a white horse" and installing a personal dictatorship by completely democratic methods. The people will be happy, since they are counting on a firm authority restoring order, but they will be deceived once again: the firm authority will be imposed for the sole aim of defending thieves and political criminals from any attempt to impose order. This is "Putinism".

The authors of this scenario have underestimated two factors. First, for some reason, they believe that the war in Chechnya will end in victory or, at least, in something that can be presented as victory. But soldiers are dying in reality, and there is no end in sight.

In the best case for the Kremlin, the war will not end. It will continue until there is a change of power in Russia. At worst, the shattered forces of generals Shamanov and Kazantsev will drag themselves out of Chechnya by the spring much as Napoleon's army crawled out of Russia, abandoning equipment and stragglers.

Nor is it excluded that the armed forces, tormented by a senseless war, will start to fall apart like the Russian army in 1916. Leaks from the general staff, surfacing in articles by journalist Pavel Felgenhauer in the English-language Moscow Times, map out unpleasant prospects. For several weeks, military experts have been issuing warnings, but the political leadership prefers to proclaim victory. Russia's military and political leaders are becoming hostages to their own propaganda.


If what we find in Chechnya is defeat instead of victory, another factor will come into play, namely President Yeltsin. For the moment, Yeltsin cannot be said to be playing an independent role. Everything is for Putin, and everything is in the name of Putin.

It appears, however, that analysts have written off the president prematurely. There is no doubt that Yeltsin sincerely wants to hand over power to a legitimately elected successor. But he will never hand over power, since in reality, and without even admitting it to himself, he knows perfectly well that he will leave his post only to go to the graveyard.

There is only one way out of this contradiction: to ensure that the transfer of power cannot occur "for objective reasons". In the case of a defeat in Chechnya, the present prime minister will become unelectable. Putin will be blamed for the failure, and removed. The whole political class will be discredited. Yeltsin will remain the only alternative. Yeltsin forever!

Even this scenario, however, is not the final one. It is still not known what surprises the authorities have in store. The worse things become for the generals, the greater the likelihood that the captains and colonels will have their say.

Russian reforms and revolutions have always had their origins in lost wars, and the Chechen campaign of 1999-2000 is unlikely to be an exception. We are used to being humiliated, but there is a limit to everything. Defeat in the war could act as a turning-point for social consciousness, with people making the transition from apathy to protest and resistance.