Vladimir Putin has enjoyed considerable success in his first year in office. The country handed over to him by Boris Yeltsin was a country in shambles. Wages remained unpaid for many workers after almost nine years of reforms. The military was disillusioned and morale was non-existent. The Kremlin was a hotbed of corruption and cronyism. Yeltsin himself feared indictment after leaving office.
As the charges of corruption and scandals in his administration began to mount Yeltsin agreed to appoint Putin, a relatively unknown shadowy former KGB operative, as his prime minister. Vladimir Putin was a strange choice for Yeltsin to make. It was Boris Yeltsin who disbanded the KGB after the coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev. The action created thousands of unemployed ex-KGB agents — including Vladimir Putin.
Putin had never held elective office, in fact, he was unemployed until just before he got his big break.
But his intelligence background made him acceptable to the military. And he was willing to protect Yeltsin and his family from prosecution after they left the Kremlin. On Dec. 31, 1999 — three months in advance of elections, Boris Yeltsin resigned and Vladimir Putin assumed Russia’s top job. Yeltsin got a signed agreement protecting him from prosecution and guaranteeing him a comfortable retirement.
The silent coup d’etat went off without a hitch. The first and only warning the West had of what was soon to come was the incident at the Pristina Airport during the NATO war when Russian troops seized the airport, disobeying direct orders to the contrary issued by Yeltsin himself. That Putin was the man of the hour was apparent with the ease with which he restored discipline. Boris Yeltsin’s power began slipping away from him then, and by the end of the year it was all gone. The only thing left to do was cut the best deal he could and get out of Dodge.
Since being elected in March, Putin has changed the face of the New Russia. Under Yeltsin, Russia was the global welfare case, a ward of the International Monetary Fund. To obtain foreign loan guarantees, the former superpower was expected to dance to the music of its new masters. The IMF is in principle a UN organization, but in practice consists primarily of US banking interests.
Since taking office, Vladimir Putin has turned the tables. Now the IMF comes to him, hat in hand, to seek permission to grant loan guarantees, just to keep the giant Russian bear from looking to expand outside its borders. Russia’s economy is turning around, and Putin is making it clear that there is a limit to Russian patience. Last week, he announced cavalierly that Russia might not bother servicing its national debt this quarter.
Instead of the angry denunciation Boris Yeltsin might have expected, Vladimir Putin got invited to visit Germany to meet with top officials of the G-7 and the IMF. Russia’s national image is slowly being restored under Putin. After all, nobody spat on Josef Stalin’s shoes, either, they note with pride.
But that image comes at a cost — both to the Russians, and potentially the West. Putin has slowly been restoring the infrastructure of the old Soviet system into Russian society. Freedom of the press has been drastically curtailed. Other democratic freedoms are being drastically reduced or eliminated entirely.
Diplomatically, Russia has been doing a lot of muscle flexing, something completely absent from the Yeltsin years but eerily reminiscent of the Krushchev years. Putin paid a visit to Cuba to stick a thumb in Washington’s eye by visiting a key Soviet-era electronic eavesdropping post on the island aimed at US communications traffic. Talks are under way to restore the old relationship between the Kremlin and Fidel Castro.
Militarily, Putin has endeared himself to his generals by giving them carte blanche to prosecute the Chechen war. He has continued to beef up the Russian military, increasing its budget and continuing weapons development programs despite signed arms control agreements. He has spurned a Yeltsin promise not to sell arms to Iran, going so far as to conclude a mutual defense agreement that makes Iran’s enemy the Kremlin’s enemy. Putin is attempting to restore the old satellite status between the Kremlin and countries like Syria and Iraq — they’re receiving boatloads of weapons and cash from Moscow for use in their coming war with Israel.
Most recently, Putin has introduced a “new” state security service that will make the old Stalinist system look inefficient by comparison. The reorganization would include the FSB, the Border Guards, and the Fapsi, the agency charged with electronic eavesdropping. All of these organizations would report to a single authority, and would all but eliminate civilian oversight over their activities.
For all of this, life for the average Russian on the street has improved under Putin’s rule. After 10 long years, many citizens see a glimmer of hope for a better future. It stands as testimony to just how tough the 10-year democratic experience has been to the man on the street that the possibility of a looming state dictatorship is seen as a “better” future.
All of these developments do not come as a surprise to this writer. In the scenario of cataclysmic last-days events, the unerring prophets of the Bible give Russia a major role. The Prophets Ezekiel, Joel and Daniel foresaw Russia, along with a Middle Eastern confederacy, igniting a war that will envelop the entire planet. So if you thought Russia was finished as major military power, just watch; you ain’t seen nothing yet.