Vienna, October 13 – In recent weeks, Moscow commentator Aleksandr Skobov notes, there has been “a significant enlivening of the discussion about the circumstances of the birth of Putin’s regime,” a good sign for the country but quite possibly “the most dangerous theme for him personally and for his regime as a whole.”
Most of the attention, not surprisingly has focused on whether Vladimir Putin exploited the blowing up of the Russian apartment blocks by the Chechens as he and his supporters have always insisted in order to come to power or whether the former KGB and FSB officer blew them up himself in the pursuit of the same goal (grani.ru/Politics/Russia/m.160491.htm).
But a far more important question, Skobov argues, is one that was posed by Aleksandr Goldfarb this week (grani.ru/opinion/goldfarb/m.160370.html): was Putin always an agent of the security agencies or was he “initially loyal to the Kremlin command” and then “having had a taste of power, decided to build a personal dictatorship and turned to the FSB for his assistants.”
Goldfarb argued for the second alternative, suggesting that it is “a completely evident truth” that Boris Berezovsky and other oligarchs would not have “self-consciously promoted the coming to power of the FSB” because “the special services” were his and their enemy. But Skobov argues that Goldfarb has gotten things exactly backward.
He writes that “he would not have believed that Aleksandr Goldfarb was so naïve if such ‘naiveté’ were not characteristic for [Russia’s] liberal public commentariat as a whole. That group up to now explains the evolutionary of the post-perestroika regime by the fact that ‘the chekists’ quietly and behind the scenes broke through to power.”
In fact, the Grani.ru commentator says, things were just the reverse. “The ‘bloody KGB,’” he argues, “was used by the ruling group, which consciously put the country on the path of rejecting the ‘liberal’ methods of rule characteristic of the Yeltsin era to a transition to authoritarian methods.”
“The post-Perestroika ruling elite never was attached to democratic ideals,” Skobov says. “Its ‘faith’ involved being, in comparison with the former party nomenklatura, ‘a more effective manager.’” Its success in gaining control of what had been state property was, in its own mind at least, clear evidence of that, even though this view was not shared by the Russian people.”
By the end of the 1990s, the oligarchs had come to recognize that “if they continued to play according to liberal rules, there would be no guarantees of [their] preservation of ‘what they had acquired with such enormous effort.’” Their actions were legally independence and harmful socially and politically, and they knew the risks they ran if things did not change.
As a result, Skobov continues, “the oligarchs became vitally interested in the formation of a political regime in which power would not depend at all on ‘the accidental inclinations of a capricious mob,’” but rather on something more predictable and that they could hope to have a larger voice in.
In short, the Grani.ru commentator argues, “the oligarchs needed a dictatorship which would defend them ‘from popular anger,’” but they needed a regime so organized and presented to the outside world that “the people itself would thing that it, the people was defending them from the oligarchs.”
Discussions about that possibility were part and parcel of the discussions about “authoritarian modernization” and the cults of Stolypin and Pinochet in the middle 1990s, Skobov argues. They contained the notion that competitive multi-party democracy was incompatible with the solution of the challenges Russian faced.
Not surprisingly, such attitudes brought together the oligarchs, on the one hand, and the chekists, on the other, all the more so because by the end of the 1990s, “the chekists were quite close to the oligarchs socially,” given that many of them had participated in the seizure of state assets and viewed themselves as “the more effective manager.”
And by 2000, the two groups had “come together into a single class of the ruling kleptocracy or ‘force oligarchy,’ as [another Moscow commentator] Mikhail Delyagin puts it.” And they thus conspired to put in place an anti-democratic, authoritarian regime that would protect their property.
“Let us not overrate the role of personality in history,” Skobov continues, even someone as “undoubtedly colorful” as Berezovsky. “When he pushed the Putin Project initially, he was expressing the collective will of his own class,” because by 1999, this class “had no other way out” given that genuine elections might have led to the loss of its ownership stakes.
That should not surprise anyone, Skobov concludes, because “history has demonstrated time and again that the class to which Boris Abramovich [Berezovsky] belongs in order to preserve most of its privileges is always ready to sacrifice part of its freedoms and even more the freedoms of its fellow citizens.”
If one adopts this perspective, the Moscow commentator suggests, then it becomes obvious that “the truth murderer of the young Russian democracy” was not Putin and the special services past and present but rather “precisely” the members of this class whose economic interests drove them to kill democracy rather than promote it.