Monday, September 10, 2007

Window on Eurasia: The Coming ‘De-Putinization’ of Russia

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 10 – In order to be able to build his own team, Russia’s next leader will have to pursue the “de-Putinization” of Russia, a process that will likely include both significant departures from Putin’s policies and attacks on the current president’s personality cult, according to a leading Moscow commentator.
“The very logic of power relations” in Russia – a logic that many have forgotten because of the uniqueness of the last two leadership transitions -- will force him to do so, Yegor Kholmogorov argues in an article entitled “The Iceberg of ‘De-Putinization’” posted online last week (
Because the Russian state historically has been able to act without much regard for society, new leaders usually have had to distance themselves from their predecessors in order to build their own networks of support within the bureaucracy, especially if the previous leader was popular or had been in office a long time.
But many people have forgotten this reality of Russian life because the last two transitions were so different: In both of them, the previous two leaders – Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin – left office so discredited that there was no need for their successor to do what Nikita Khrushchev famously did with regard to Stalin.
Now, however, Putin may be leaving office in a very different way, after eight years of more or less unchallenged success, and that situation, Kholmogorov insists, means that his successor is unlikely to avoid choosing to do what most other newly elevated leaders of Russia have done.
And that will be true, Kholmogorov points out, even if as seems virtually certain that Putin’s successor is handpicked by the current leader and will appear to all to be committed to his policies and among Putin’s most loyal followers.
Unfortunately, Kholmogorov continues, that could lead to a real tragedy from his point of view. That is because the most likely shift for Russia would be toward a more open, democratic, and Western-style country, a direction that Kholmogorov, an ardent Russian nationalist and authoritarian finds offensive.
A somewhat less likely scenario for “de-Putinization,” the Moscow analyst continues, would be to seek to strengthen the Russianness of the regime, by demonstrating “greater respect to the interests of the Russian majority and to the great power tasks of Russia.”
“But for that to happen,” Kholmogorov says, would require “changing the very construction of Russian power as it has been formulated already for the last several centuries,” an arrangement based not on the principle of “a strong power with a strong people” but rather on that of “a strong power with a weak people.”
Consequently, “de-Putinization” seems virtually certain to happen, but this time it may lead to a crackup – hence Kholmogorov’s reference to “the iceberg” that this process represents.
On the one hand, Russian leaders seem deaf to the idea that they need to change the way in which state power is constituted. But on the other, Russians, at least in Kholmogorov’s reading, are no longer prepared to accept without any protest their current powerlessness.
And consequently, he concludes, there very likely will be a crash of some kind, between leaders following the traditional succession pattern and the population seeking something else. In that event, Russia may crash on “the iceberg of de-Putinization,” with the danger that like the Titanic, it too could sink from the surface of history.

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