Dr RG Gidadhubli

Dr RG Gidadhubli is an Emeritus Professor and Former Director of Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai.

Vladimir Putin – The Leader Superior

Dr RG Gidadhubli

Image Source - Time Magazine

Image Source – Time Magazine


Vladimir Putin, who has been in power in Russia for the last one and half decade, inherited the legacy of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who was the president after the breakup of the former Soviet Union. Policies of ‘Shock Therapy’ pursued by Yeltsin to transform the former socialist system into a political democracy and market economy in one-stroke had severely impacted political and socio-economic conditions in Russia, resulting in destabilisation, rising crime, economic crisis, hyper inflation, sharp decline in Gross Domestic Product by as much as 50 percent, widening economic disparities among various sections of the population and impoverishment of about 40-50 percent of population. At the same time, there emerged a ‘new class’ of Russians when hundreds of them became millionaires (and a few billionaires) who parked their ill-gotten money abroad to avoid taxes. Yeltsin was bent on preventing his political opponents, mainly communists, to mobilise and defeat his process of change to political democracy that partly led to virtual chaos in many regions of Russia, creating political instability. Yeltsin’s over ambitious attempt of promoting close political ties with the USA, hoping to become part of the West, led to the neglect of the East and even former Central Asian states.

It is important to examine how Putin managed to bring about transformation in the country under such conditions, what are his policy priorities and how far he has succeeded.

Controlling Power

At the outset, it needs to be stated that Putin’s focus has been on centralisation of power and it did create conflicts not only between the centre and some regions but also amongst regions on sharing of power. He has not allowed regional heads to even be designated as presidents (unlike in the past), contending that there will be only one president in Russia and that is in Moscow, as per the law passed by the parliament in 2010. This was intended to reduce the autonomy of the regions and republics in Russia such as Chechnya, Tatarastan, Bashkirostan etc. while ensuring them to retain their ethnic identity. Some heads who are close allies of Kremlin have supported Putin.

Putin, a former KGB agent, managed to garner support of Siloviki clan comprising security services for controlling conflicting groups among policy making circles in the Kremlin. He knows how to balance power. Popularity of his strong leadership is evident from results of the election held in March 2012. For his third term of presidency, he managed to get 64 percent of votes against four other candidates including, communist leader Gennady Zyuganov (who got 17 percent of votes). This despite many protest marches in Moscow and few other cities.

He did not even violate the law while contesting for his third term in 2012, as his close associate Dimitri Medvedev was the president for the previous term of 2008-2012. During that period, Putin was the prime minister and yet he managed to assert total power and control in managing the political process in the country. He put together a team by inducting his close associates like political activist Vyacheslav Volodin and leaders of parties like Nashi and Young Guards, who campaigned for Putin under the slogans ‘Great Russia Needs a Strong Leader’, ‘No Chaos’, ‘No Color Revolution’ etc. He also won the support of the educated middle class and the older generation who wanted stability for Russia after the turbulent 1990s. At the same time, unlike Yeltsin who changed prime ministers often, the Putin-Medvedev tandem has been close, stable and effective in managing state machinery and regions. They have exchanged their seats as president and prime minister during the last one and half decade.

Reviving the Russian Might

Putin had declared during his second term of presidency of 2004-2008 that he was keen to revive Russia’s military might by rebooting the sluggish military to the tune of $770 billion in 8-10 years and bringing about military reforms and modernisation of the defence sector. There isWeb_Vladimir Putin_2 some evidence to this effect, since leading US analysts in September 2015 have opined that Russia has narrowed the gap with the West in developing new military fighter planes.  Equally important is the fact that an Army Commander Vladimir Shamanov thanked Putin for bringing stability in Chechnya with determination as this region had witnessed continuous threats for several years.

Putin has consistently supported the Central Asian States on matters relating to security and economic issues. For instance, Tajikistan and Kyrgyz Republics have depended for security upon the Collective Security Treaty Organisation led by Russia to contain increasing threats by terrorist organisations including ISIS. Tajik president, Emomali Rahmon, thanked Putin during their latest meeting in Dushanbe on the September 15, 2015.

Putin has also shifted policy priority with his ‘Look-East Policy’ laying an emphasis on Russia’s political and economic ties with China, India etc. Russia wants to play an important role in the BRICS organisation. Hence, Putin was actively promoting Russia’s global significance in the Ufa Summit held in 2015, apart from dominating its influence in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to counter the West.

Economic Achievements

On the economic front, subsequent to Putin’s taking over presidency in 2000, the Russian economy has witnessed stability and improved growth by 4-6 percent per annum and inflation was brought under control during the period 2000-2008. There was a substantial increase in investment in the economy, improvement in per capita income and decline in unemployment which has enhanced his popularity in the country.

It needs to be noted that energy played an important role during that period, enhancing Putin’s popularity. There was a steady rise in the price of oil and natural gas in the global market from about $45 per barrel in 2000 to over $140 in 2008. This brought a huge inflow of petrodollars as Russia was a major exporter of oil to the West, especially Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Baltic countries, and to China. Despite of having lost the superpower status after the Soviet disintegration, Putin utilised Russia’s huge energy potentialities (about 18 of world’s oil and 32 percent of natural gas) to emerge as an Energy Superpower. Moreover, Putin was shrewd in adopting the policy of ‘resource nationalism’, which increased the share of the state in Russian energy companies and even exerting control over energy pipelines. Putin’s geo-economic interest is evident in his support to Russian energy companies such as Gazprom which invested in the energy sector in many countries abroad, including the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Putin can take credit as Russia succeeded in its objective of economic transition. It got recognised as a market economy by 2002 and was subsequently granted admission to the World Trade Organisation, which helped it to integrate with the global economy and increase trade and economic ties with major countries in the world. He has also achieved some success in his policy measures to bring back the money laundered by some oligarchs which has partly helped investment and economic development during the last decade or so. Putin managed to get billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky convicted, who had amassed wealth by owning an energy company in Siberia but was charged for evading tax. At the same time, a few billionaires chose to cooperate with the government by investing their money for economic development. In fact, as per reports, Putin himself is a millionaire.

Putin has also succeeded in setting up the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015, comprising of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyz Republic to counter European Union of the West. This organisation is expected to promote greater trade and economic relations among the member countries by removing customs restrictions etc.

Challenges Persist  

Notwithstanding several achievements, problems and challenges persist in Russia.

Image Source - Business Insider

Image Source – Business Insider

For instance, while Putin’s policy of annexation of Crimea in March 2014 from Ukraine immensely raised his popularity in the country, it has also gotten him heavy criticism and condemnation by the Western powers. In fact, Russia has been paying a heavy price for the economic sanctions being imposed by the West since early 2015, which has affected the Russian economy.

Then on certain international issues such as how to contain the growing threat of Islamic State, Russia has differences with the West since Putin wants to continue to extend support to the Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, Russia’s staunch ally. Hence he has sent fighter jets, helicopters, tanks, artillery, anti-aircraft missiles, and troops to the Latakia Province, the stronghold of Assad. But many Western and some Middle Eastern countries want to bring about a change in the leadership of Syria to bring about stability and peace in the region.  This escalates tensions between Russia and the West.

On the economic front, Russia has been over dependent on the energy sector and export earnings from oil and natural gas. This raises the question on the rationality of Putin’s economic policy. In fact, the persisting decline in international prices of oil and gas during the last couple of years has had a very adverse effect on the economy. GDP growth has declined to below 3 percent during 2014-15.

On the domestic front, some political leaders and activists of the younger generation are not supportive of Putin’s policies both on domestic and external issues. Moscow saw thousands of young people in protest against the killing of political activist and Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov in Moscow in February 2015.

Dr Gidadhubli has written this article in discussions with Dr Sanjay Deshpande, Director, Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai.



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