Review: Inside Putin’s Russia, by Andrew Jack.



1 Mar 2005

Although it was not widely recognised at the time, the choice of Vladimir Putin as Prime Minister of Russia in 1999 appears to have marked the beginning of a transition from chaos to order in the once communist nation. The question is, in moving away from chaos, might the pendulum swing once again towards the repression of the Soviet years?. But, while Western political pundits and politicians talk of a return to Stalinism, the majority of Russians appear to be unconcerned; Putin and his nationalist policies enjoy high levels of support.

Despite what many commentators would have us believe, the situation in Russia is complex; fortunately, Andrew Jack’s ‘Inside Putin’s Russia’ offers help in understanding it. The book provides us with a well documented and equally well balanced account of the surprising rise of Russia’s President, and of the struggle for power and control over an emerging society. Jack, a former Moscow Bureau Chief for the Financial Times, tracks the course of Putin’s career, from his rather low-profile time with the KGB, to his development into a more polished and more authoritarian President whose efforts to place the country back under the control of the central government have met with mixed reviews in the West.

Personal history aside, the real value of Inside Putin’s Russia is that it provides us with a richly detailed description of the political context in which to judge the man and his actions. Control of the media is one key area. The Russian President has been strongly criticised for bringing independent media under state control, but as Jack points out, the Russian media has enjoyed very few, and very short, periods of independence. At the time of Putin’s first presidential victory most ‘independent’ sources were to a large extent under the control of commercial interests, principally those of ‘Oligarchs’: the men who gained ownership of much of Russian state assets in exchange for financial or media support of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency.

The struggle for control of the television channel NTV, once owned by the Oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, has been portrayed in Western media as a simple issue of freedom of the press, but as Jack’s presentation makes obvious, there are other important aspects. Media independence is an important element in a pluralistic society,it is therefore a problem that much of the Russian media now functions as an organ of the state. However, it would be naïve to assume that the press is free where it is not under state control. The ground rules must be clearly set out, but the question is, by whom, the state or the super rich? In western liberal democracies the answer is also not as clear as we might wish while Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi continue to increase their influence over political processes. The Russians are not the only people with problems, and it ought to be more of a concern.

Putin’s Russia has also come under attack as being ‘undemocratic’ but it would be wise to take into account that the country is not, and has no history of being, a liberal democracy. As Jack rightly points out, most of its citizens believe the role of the state to be fundamental, hence the approval of policies involving greater state control. Much of the criticism has its roots in American efforts to pre-empt any future Russian threat, and their need for continued access to increasingly important Russian oil. The campaign has, meanwhile, proved a useful vehicle for more personal agendas. As part of his own anti-Putin crusade, Boris Berezovsky is funding Human Rights groups, some of which paint the Oligarchs – particularly the now jailed Mikhail Khodorkovsky – as ‘victims’ of Human Rights abuses rather than the beneficiaries of a highly unethical, although technically legal, massive transfer of public funds to private pockets.

The case for respecting Human Rights is more evident in Chechnya. Whether Putin has made a Faustian bargain with the military, allowing them free rein in order to concentrate on other areas, or whether he himself is directing operations, the results of the re-occupation of Chechnya and the ‘dirty war’ being waged there now the official conflict is over, are brutal. No matter that one unnamed Russian officer is quoted as claiming that the army is ‘only’ responsible for 50% of disappearances. It remains to be seen if the situation can be changed and the army curbed. For the military, the occupation now appears to have become, as Jack puts it, ‘its own raison d’etre’, while the roots of the ‘Chechen Problem’ itself go back beyond the first war of 1994-6, beyond even the chaos and corruption that invaded the region after the collapse of the USSR.

Inside Putin’s Russia manages to find a way through the Chechen minefield without veering too much to one side or another. It is to Andrew Jack’s credit that he does not lend himself to simplistic analyses and presents information on which we can form an opinion. That does not mean that the tangle of characters and vested interests is always easy to follow, but Jack can hardly be blamed for that, and he has taken the trouble to provide a helpful Dramatis Persona.

As for Putin’s legacy, in many respects he deserves credit for curbing the excesses of the Yeltsin period and bringing financial resources back under state control. But the Russian President has questions to answer, in particular over Chechnya, and in his quest for order he may have, or may be tempted to go too far. Overall, Jack is probably correct when he states: “He (Putin) is unlikely to go down in history as a great transformational leader. But he may yet be viewed as playing an essential role of cohesion, stability and predictability – in domestic and even international affairs”. After the roller coaster ride of the Yeltsin years, that will be no small achievement.