In 1999, Vladimir Putin inherited the position of Prime Minister from outgoing President Boris Yeltsin. The fledgling Russian Federation had only just emerged from the most sudden loss of territory in recorded history. The dissolution of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) eight years previously, had opened up the economie and resources of emerging (former USSR) States to the predations of private interests for the first time. Private ownership of enterprises and property having been practically illegal during the existence of the Soviet Union.
Fifteen years is a long time: a person can change a lot in 15 years, do a lot of growing up. Although, it should be a lot more widely recognized that “growing up” is not always a good thing, as growing further from the imagination and vision of youth pulls us towards a state of stale imitation, growing to become “big and strong” like father or “gentle and kind” like mother, rather than boldly proceeding along a course of innovation, discovery or creation, we forfeit our enjoyment in febrile pursuit of the symbols of life: instead treading well worn boards in choreographed steps of perpetually repeated performances.
Although ineligible to run for a third consecutive presidential term in 2008, Putin was ordained Prime Minister by elected President Dmyitry Medvedev, in September 2011, following a change in the law extending the presidential term from four years to six. Putin announced that he would seek a third, non-consecutive, term as President in 2012, which he won in March 2012 amidst popular opposition demonstrations and protests, a position he holds to this day.
Putin himself had been an apparently unremarkable Bureaucrat since 1990, involved in international trade and development, he was investigated around 1992 for suspected mis-dealings in the metal export market. Despite recommendations for him to be fired over missing metal valued at $93 million, the ex-KGB officer remained there until being promoted to the “Committee for External Relations” in St Petersburg, and eventually Moscow, in 1996 where he was appointed by Yeltsin as the “Deputy Chief of the Presidential Property Management Department”, responsible for the foreign property of the state and organizing transfer of the former assets of the Soviet Union.
During this period under the neo-Liberal leadership of Boris Yeltsin, whose government was advised by Harvard economics professor and advocate of “Shock Therapy” Jeffrey Sachs, subsidized wages, currency and price controls were dismantled as quickly as possible. This enabled the sale of Soviet state infrastructure and industries to the profit of wealthy businessmen and Russian State insiders, such as Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Roman Abramovic, Anatoly Chubais and Yegor Gaidar, who all reaped enviable financial rewards from the process of privatization at the expense of the Russian people.
Writing for “The Economist,” in January 13, 1990, Sachs said:
“The reforms under communism were necessarily self-limiting, and thereby self-defeating. But after the democratic revolution of 1989, Eastern Europe can move beyond the failed “market socialism” and create a real market economy with a large private sector and free trade.”
In pursuit of this “perfect competition,” the neo-Liberal reformers would have to disconnect the people from the products of their labour, redistribute their land and resources to a non-existent Russian capitalist class, and coerce them with the threat of “free-market” poverty to accept a system in which they would find themselves far worse off, but in which ex-Party bureaucrats, black market-capitalists, and oligarchs could make a lot more money.
Despite Jeffrey Sachs neo-liberal economic reforms being a complete divergence from the previous 75 years of Russian history, Chubais and Gaidar’s were akin to throwing the collective property -that the “Soviet” people were ruthlessly exploited to build under Stalinism- into the air, and hoping that a working capitalist economy emerges fairly quickly out of the broken remains on the floor. All forms of a safety net were rejected by the neo-liberal reformers who ignored most of Sachs’ recommendations beyond completely deregulating the economy,.
In the mid 90’s Sachs said:
“The combination of falling oil earning, balance of payments crisis, and soaring budget deficit, led to a combination of intense shortages, soaring black market prices, and a collapsing value of the ruble in the black market. The economy, in short, was spinning out of control, into high inflation, mass shortages, and a breakdown of production. Moreover, with the collapse of Soviet power, the forced allocation of resources by central planning was dead.”
Yeltsin may have broken with the traditions of his forebears, but the opportunity to play a leading role in the historical development of Social Democracy in parts of Europe and the Soviet Union, was aborted. Rather than proceeding with the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, which aimed to democratize Soviet Communism, called; “Glasnost and Perestroika“, Yeltsin followed the path of privatization and acquiescence to the dictats of capital, continuing the one-sided accumulation of resources which had occurred in the advanced capitalist nations under the neo-liberalism of Thatcher and “Reaganomics”.
Recalling his response to the Belavezha Accords, with which Yeltsin took over control of Russia by secret treaty with two other member States of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev wrote in his book “My Country and the World”, that: “the fate of the multinational state cannot be determined by the will of the leaders of three republics. The question should be decided only by constitutional means with the participation of all sovereign states and taking into account the will of all their citizens. The statement that union-wide legal norms would cease to be in effect is also illegal and dangerous; it can only worsen the chaos and anarchy in society.”
What’s clear is that at around this point, Sach’s influence over the newly emerging system of free-markets was far less significant than the hard cash available to those overseeing the sale of former Soviet Union assets. Sachs stated his reasons for departure:
“The idea was to push the assets out into private hands as quickly as possible, even if corruption and unfairness ensued… I have always fought corruption, and resigned from Russia in 1993 because I found corruption to be growing and out of control. I have always paid attention to the plight of the poor…”
Faced with the daunting prospect of going against the grain and forging a new path in world history, many fail to see beyond the primitive accumulation of resources, and endless competitions laid out to preoccupy us. Any credulity is immediately exploited by one personality cult or another, capitalist technocrats and other priesthoods dispense “the way” to faithful adherents, pointing out the riches and personal gains available for all who partake.
The story of Putin is no different, anti-Putin writer Stanislav Belkovsky (brother of exiled Boris Berezovsky) estimates his personal wealth at $70 billion, which is likely to be an overestimation but such speculations are the inevitable result of a Presidency beyond public scrutiny. According to a report drawn up by former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, Putin has access to 58 aircraft, four yachts and nearly two-dozen homes as part of his lavish lifestyle in charge of Russia.
Despite a number of oligarchs being investigated for illegal activities, particularly tax evasion, still there were 36 billionaires of Russian citizenship listed in the Russian Forbes Rich List 2004, this number decreased over the following years as Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky both avoided legal proceedings by leaving Russia. The most prominent oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Yukos oil), was arrested in October 2003 and is serving 14 years in prison.
Far from supporting attempts to uncover corruption in the motherland, the case of Sergei Magnitsky highlights there are “profound systemic deficiencies in the administration of justice in Russia”, irrespective of the false image snappily dressed lap dogs like Peter Lavelle and Abby Martin on Kremlin mouthpiece RT like to purvey. In 2010 Russia came 154th out of 178 countries according to influential global NGO Transparency International‘s corruption index.
Putin is a powerful man, and one who didn’t start where he is. Whether he is a good man or not is not a question we can answer, with still an overwhelming amount of his history unknown. But, Putin is undoubtedly an important piece of the post-Soviet world.