Vladimir Putin knows that Russia is in trouble, but he doesn’t seem to know what to do about it.
In both his recent epic three-hour press conference and his New Year’s address, the normally bullish Russian president appeared uncharacteristically sober. Instead of the bombastic, confident tsar, we saw an engaged chief executive doing his best to reassure stockholders of his resolve. “The Russian economy has generally overcome the crisis,” he said. Debt is down and the population is up, he added — “a very good figure that speaks of the people’s [positive] state of mind.”
But if he was seeking to calm jittery citizens, it was with limited success. Putin seems to realize that Russia is teetering on the brink, its assertive global agenda held together by momentum, bluff, and duct tape. The country has had two years of recession; real incomes have taken a beating; labor unrest is on the rise. Yet there is no strategy beyond waiting for world oil prices some day to recover.
With Putin facing an economy in crisis, a restive public, and an elite more interested in furthering its interests than those of the state, maybe it’s time he took some unexpected lessons from one of his heroes: the ruthless reformist Yuri Andropov.
Putin has made no bones about his admiration for Andropov, the man who headed the KGB when Putin first joined the organization and who served as Soviet general secretary for just over a year, from November 1982 to February 1984. One of Putin’s first acts when he became prime minister in 1999 was to reinstate the plaque to Andropov on the former KGB headquarters building (now home to its successor, the FSB). In 2004, to mark the 90th anniversary of Andropov’s birth, Putin had a 10-foot statue erected in the town of Petrozavodsk, where Andropov had led the underground resistance against the Nazis.
Andropov was a complex figure — hard to like, but impossible to ignore. He could be vicious in his unswerving commitment to the Communist Party. As KGB chief, he had dissidents locked up in psychiatric hospitals, whistleblowers silenced, and journalists hounded and muzzled, while before that, as Soviet ambassador to Hungary in 1956, he had been instrumental in the crushing of the Hungarian uprising against the country’s neo-Stalinist government.
At the same time, Andropov was equally responsible for the relatively liberal economic system that Budapest was subsequently allowed to adopt in 1962, which meant that Hungarians enjoyed a quality of life greater than elsewhere in the Soviet bloc. He had been appointed to head the KGB precisely to drag it out of Stalin’s shadow, to professionalize and modernize it. Rather than thugs and sadists, the KGB began recruiting the best and the brightest from Soviet universities, and while still an agency of repression, its watchword became to pre-empt rather than to punish, whenever it could. He was also pivotal in engineering the rise of a new generation of liberalizing reformists, including Mikhail Gorbachev, who probably would never have made it to the Kremlin without his patronage. This helps explain why Andropov is still positively regarded in unexpected quarters such as imprisoned liberal former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who, in published correspondence from 2008 to 2009 with Russian novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya, expressed his respect for Andropov “despite his excesses in some situations.”
But Putin, despite his admiration, seems to appreciate only some of Andropov’s qualities — his intellect, his determination, and his ruthlessness — while ignoring the steadying traits that helped temper his character. Worse, he has adopted the worst tactics of Andropov-the-Secret-Policeman — not least, the targeted repression of a few in order to deter and dismay the many — when what he really needs now is to take some lessons from Andropov-the-Leader.
Here are few to get him started.
Tackle corruption at the top. (That means you, Vladimir.)
Putin talks tough on how corruption “erodes society and the state system” — but then does nothing against the senior figures engaging in the kind of embezzlement that is bleeding the country dry. Part of the problem, of course, is that Putin himself has been closely involved in corrupt businesses ever since he got into politics at the start of the 1990s (whether or not he is indeed personally worth $200 billion, as outspoken Kremlin critic Bill Browder alleges).
By contrast, Andropov was distinctive among his peers for his ascetic lifestyle and his lack of interest in so many of the perks available to top party bosses. When one of his deputies presented him with a crate of cognac to mark the KGB’s anniversary, Andropov — who was not much of a drinker and was notoriously unwilling to accept self-serving gifts — contemptuously refused it. As a recent panegyric documentary put it, “One suit, one overcoat, and his children and grandchildren rode the metro.”
Even before coming into power, the anti-corruption zealot used his control of the KGB to launch a campaign that would go into overdrive once he was general secretary, cutting a bloody swath through the upper echelons of the government. He sacked 15 ministers, including the interior minister. By tackling corrupt officials at the top of the system, not only was he trying to attack a real problem, but he was also showing ordinary Soviet citizens that this was not just a PR exercise.
In part, Andropov was driven by personal zeal, but he also understood that the Soviet economy by the late 1970s was in serious decline, not least thanks to a fall in world oil prices. (Sound familiar?) Then, as today, the masses were forced to swallow austerity. Unlike then, however, under Putin the elite is getting off lightly. Russian oligarchs hit by Western sanctions, for example, are compensated by the government even as pensions and welfare payments fall behind inflation, ostensibly due to a lack of funds. This disparity of treatment is at the heart, for example, of recent protests by truckers forced to pay a new tax; the contract to collect this tax went to the son of one of Putin’s cronies. Not a good look — and the sort of thing Andropov took great pains to avoid.
Realize that Russia loses from conflict with the West
Andropov was a Marxist-Leninist hard-liner who mistrusted the West and everything for which he thought it stood. Nonetheless, he realized that he needed to improve relations. The Cold War was dangerous and unaffordable: Moscow could not withstand a lengthy confrontation with a richer, more dynamic West
He made, for example, the first serious overtures aimed at extracting the Soviets from their war in Afghanistan, opening up tentative lines of communication with Washington even before Moscow was willing to admit that it was fighting there. He was willing to sacrifice a questionable and erratic foreign ally in the name of ending a commitment that was costly, not just economically and militarily but — more importantly — politically. (Assad, are you listening?)
And even still, Andropov made only limited progress in foreign relations. Ideological blinkers, mutual suspicion, and sheer bad luck all led to stumbles, especially after the 1983 shootdown of a South Korean airliner that had wandered into Soviet airspace. By then, the West wasn’t willing to trust him, and by that stage Andropov was already too ill — in February 1983, he had suffered total renal failure and never recovered — to restart his campaign from scratch.
Putin, who likewise is trying to challenge the West and reshape the global order on the back of an ailing economy and a corrupt, inefficient system, should take heed. He has his own undeclared, unacknowledged war in Ukraine, which continues to cost him dearly in international credibility, and even his own downed airliner: Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, shot down by his Ukrainian proxies in 2014. His most recent adventures in Syria were meant to help rebuild bridges with the West, but so far even leaders, such as France’s François Hollande, who want greater cooperation with Russia are acting out of pure pragmatism. A Pew Research Center survey released in August 2015 found trust in Putin around the world at its lowest ebb — even lower than that for Russia as a whole.
It’s the economy, Vlad
One of the main reasons for Andropov’s interest in improving relations was that he understood that Western investment, technology, and know-how would be essential to turning around an economy in stagnation that was excessively dependent on oil and natural gas exports.
Andropov adopted initial solutions that were contradictory and ineffective. On the one hand, he allowed some abortive early steps toward small-scale liberalization. At the same time, he took authoritarian measures to improve budgeting and quality control, and he pushed to overhaul the major industries. It didn’t work, but he was working against 60 years of Soviet orthodoxy; the key was that he started trying to do something about a problem talked to death over the previous decade.
Today, economic reform is again being talked to death under Putin. He squandered the opportunity to invest and diversify in the 2000s, when oil prices were high, and today he seems more interested in protecting his cronies than addressing real challenges. Monopolies and cartels abound, and the Kremlin turns a blind eye. The commercial arbitration courts, one of the few bright lights in the Russian legal system, have been rolled back into the corrupt regular courts. Even former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, a personal friend of Putin, has warned that there has been a complete lack of reform of the economic system: “We need another economic model,” he said. Same as it ever was.
Build a broad-based team, not a group of clones
Three months into his tenure, Andropov’s kidneys failed; six months later, he was plugged permanently into a dialysis machine. But Andropov still managed to make a difference even from his hospital bed, from which he laid the groundwork for Gorbachev’s rise. How? In part, he pulled together a broad-based reform team, ranging from liberal economists and party reformers to nationalists and hard-liners, who were disgusted by the corruption or convinced of the need for change. They differed on what that change should be but at least agreed that the status quo was unsustainable.
Although Putin originally was willing to appreciate multiple perspectives, over time he has steadily narrowed his inner circle, which is now composed, generally, of people like him: veterans of the security apparatus, equally as cut off from the reality of life in Russia. Putin — who reportedly prefers to not even come into the Kremlin these days, instead running Russia from his country palace — appears increasingly to live in an echo chamber, producing much reassurance but few new ideas.
Face the facts, however difficult
Putin’s team of clones is just a symptom of his wider unwillingness to see the world — Russia included — as it really is. It is hard to know precisely what Putin is told by his team, but word is that Kremlin employees have learned that you do not prosper by taking bad news or contrarian opinions to the tsar’s table. Thus, he can reel off macroeconomic statistics on everything from grain output (103.4 million tonnes) to projected new electricity generation (4.6 gigawatts) at his press conference, yet his off-the-cuff remarks increasingly betray an inability to understand the pressures and realities of life in today’s Russia. He angered the protesting truckers, for example, by essentially accusing them of making money off the books, instead of addressing the very real concerns that are driving many of them out of business.
One of Andropov’s defining characteristics, by contrast, was a willingness to go beyond the propaganda that not only swaddled ordinary Soviets but also infantilized an elite who chose to believe its comforting lies. Official crime figures, for example, skyrocketed during his time as general secretary. It was not that the streets were any more dangerous; rather, for years the party had artificially downplayed the problem. Andropov was not willing to continue this charade.
He did not always get it right, not least because of his Marxist-Leninist prejudices.
Yet he broke with tradition in his public acknowledgment that even his ideology still did not have all the answers. Even as general secretary he was willing to admit this: “Frankly speaking, we have not yet studied properly the society in which we live and work, and we have not yet fully discovered the laws governing its development, especially economic laws.” In short, he was willing to see the problems ahead rather than be blinded by propaganda and flattery.
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Of course, Andropov was one of the last defenders of a moribund and oppressive system. His specific prescriptions were probably too little, too late even 30 years ago, and they would do little to help today’s Russia reform into the kind of modern, liberal state that could best meet the aspirations of its people, who at heart are neither comfortable with kleptocracy nor eager for empire.
Putin’s Russia is a product of the 2000s, a decade of high hydrocarbon prices and a West wholly distracted by the post-9/11 threat. Those years are gone. Putin can no more bring back his glory days than even a healthy Andropov could have saved the USSR. But if he learns some of Andropov’s lessons — the need to cleanse the system from the top, build the economy, and listen to the kind of eclectic team that will give it to him straight — then there is still the faint chance Putin will do more than preside over a slide into a stagnation only temporarily masked by flashy and risky foreign adventures.
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