The power of the new boyars
During the second Chechen war, Putin was often accused of having used the intelligence services to organize the attacks of 1999 and thereby justify military intervention. Suspicions and innuendo were picked up by the newspapers and television of a large financial group headed by Boris Berezovsky. The episode is interesting because it allows us to better understand both the Russian situation in the 1990s and Putin’s politics, especially after his first election to the presidency of the Republic.
Berezovsky is an ‘oligarch’, that is to say one of the adventurous businessmen who in the early 1990s, when the privatization of state industry began, managed to take over some of the most profitable enterprises of the Soviet system. Thanks to their connections with the old state and party apparatus, they obtained huge loans that were almost canceled out by the galloping inflation of those years. And thanks to their intimate relations with the political-administrative top of the state they managed to obtain the authorizations and licenses necessary for the development of businesses. Easy money, inflation and corruption were therefore the steps of their ascent. Soon, in order to better preserve their power, the oligarchs equipped themselves with two particularly useful tools: banks and the media. The banks were used for their reckless financial operations, the media to exercise a political role, not without pressure and blackmail. The importance of their newspapers and their television was evident when Yeltsin enlisted their help during the election campaign for the 1996 presidential election. Some oligarchs supported him and thereby strengthened their influence on the Russian state. These new boyars set foot in the Kremlin and became influential members of the presidential court ever since. during the electoral campaign for the 1996 presidential election, he enlisted their help. Some oligarchs supported him and thereby strengthened their influence on the Russian state. These new boyars set foot in the Kremlin and became influential members of the presidential court ever since. during the electoral campaign for the 1996 presidential election, he enlisted their help. Some oligarchs supported him and thereby strengthened their influence on the Russian state. These new boyars set foot in the Kremlin and became influential members of the presidential court ever since.
This was the situation that Putin found when he replaced Yeltsin for the presidency of the Republic in March 2000. We do not yet know precisely the origins of the clash, but we do know that the new president deemed it necessary, for the restoration of the Russian state, to dismantle the financial and media that the oligarchs had built in previous years. Berezovsky’s polemics against the new president must be read in this context and mark the beginning of a new phase during which other oligarchs became targets of presidential politics and had to flee abroad.
One of the most sensational cases was that of Vladimir Khordokovskij, owner of the oil giant Yukos and, at the age of forty, the richest Russian businessman. Like the other oligarchs, Khordokovsky also owned the media and financed political parties. In July 2003, the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office began investigating Yukos’ accounts and making allegations of tax evasion. But it is likely that the investigations were a warning to the boss of the company in view of the political elections for the renewal of the Duma that would be held a few months later. Khordokovsky refused to bow to these pressures and challenged Putin by buying, in response, a major Moscow weekly, Moskovskie Novosti.. A few weeks later he was arrested and jailed. His case sparked negative reactions in the Western press and was interpreted as a sign of the authoritarian turn that Putin was making in his presidency. It was said that the Russian head of state was thus getting rid of the media that criticized his presidency and dealt a severe blow to the opposition parties (Jabloko and Union of Right Forces) to which Khordokovsky had provided his support.. But Western public opinion forgot that Putin’s policy against the oligarchs aroused the consensus of a large part of Russian society, so much so that it played an important part in his electoral triumph in March 2004.
Control and modernization
While the liberal and democratic West dislikes them, the Chechen war and Khordokovsky’s judicial ‘persecution’ reflect ancient concerns of the Russian ruling class. The exercise of power and the form of the state depend in Russia on factors, circumstances and historical experiences that are deeply rooted in the country’s political culture: the vulnerability of its great plains, the looming danger of foreign invasions, the threat to the country. integrity of the state of political and economic feudality. At the beginning of an unfinished ‘philosophical letter’, a great nineteenth-century intellectual, Pëtr Caadaev, suggested that nothing had been as important to the political history of Russia as the vastness of its space, conquered over the centuries thanks to a continuous combination of fear and greed. When he recaptures Chechnya or holds positions south of the Caucasus, Putin defends the integrity of the Russian space, as it has been constituting itself throughout history. When he eliminates the economic oligarchies born in the early 1990s, he fights the battles of Ivan and Peter against the boyars with modern means.
The defense of territorial integrity has an evident influence on the nature of Russian federalism. Modern Russia must be federal. The vastness of the territory and the importance of national or religious minorities make federalism an obligatory choice today. But the fear of dissolution will ensure that federalism is always counterbalanced by a strong central power. This is one of the reasons why the Russians want the Kremlin man to be strong and tolerate an authoritarian attitude in him that other European states would find unacceptable.
It remains to be seen whether the same considerations and fears are bound to have an influence on the economy of modern Russia. Can Moscow, traditionally preoccupied with secessionist pressures and the power of boyars, allow the economy to obey only the laws of the market? Or will it not rather try to keep control of the sectors on which the country’s future depends the most? Vladimir Putin is certainly a modernizer. Thanks to his experiences in the KGB he has long known the state of backwardness in which the national economy finds itself. The infrastructures have aged dramatically, the technology of many companies is obsolete. Just take a look at the list of disasters of recent years, from the sinking of the submarine Kurskto the most recent accidents in some coal mines, to see that the country has to catch up with a dramatic delay. It is not enough. Putin knows that the rejuvenation of Russia requires the capital and technology of the West. And he also knows that this capital will come to Russia on three conditions. Companies and investors need to be attracted to the prospect of large profits. It is necessary that companies and financial men find safe rules, the same for everyone. And finally, Russia’s relations with the major powers of the West must not be too conflicting.
These, then, are the terms of Putin’s dilemma. It must modernize the country and push it on the ramp of economic take-off. But it cannot allow economically strategic sectors to fall into too powerful hands and does not intend to lose control. He knows he needs the West, but he is not willing to sacrifice, on the altar of friendship with the United States, that role of great power which is closely linked to the Eurasian dimensions of the country. We do not know if it will be able to navigate happily between so many opposing needs. But Western public opinion will have to avoid judging it by the yardstick of its own values. The size of the territory and the nature of the problems impose other criteria for judgment. When confronted with the prejudices of foreigners, Russians often respond with a smile, bol’Šsaja strana, a “great land”. Western governments and public opinion will do well to remember this.