By David P. Solomon
“I vow, in the performance of my powers as the President of the Russian Federation, to respect and protect the rights and freedoms of man and citizen, to observe and protect the Constitution of the Russian Federation, to protect the sovereignty and independence, security and integrity of the state and to serve the people faithfully.”
– Oath of Office, President of the Russian Federation
Russia’s history is marred by perpetual conflict between the nation’s unbridled vastness and the totalitarianism of its government. To be sure, it is this unmanageability that made autocracy the government of choice for Russia’s ruling elite throughout history. Whether under the tsars of the imperial period or the despots of communism, this Eastern European giant always endured the heavy hand of a powerful and highly centralized national government. However, the fall of the Soviet Unionin 1990 seemingly ushered in an era of democracy that would stretch from the squares of St. Petersburgto the Siberian steppe. This trend towards democracy and federalism began with the glasnost and perestroika of Mikhail Gorbachev and extended through the administration of Boris Yeltsin. By the end of the 20th century,Russia had largely recovered from its 1997 economic meltdown and its citizens enjoyed greater political freedom than ever in an environment of considerable transparency. It is little surprise, therefore, that the world was optimistic when a chronically ill Yeltsin announced his resignation and appointed a young, ambitious successor on31 December 1999. This man was Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
Given the economic chaos of the 1990’s and a spike in Chechen terrorism, the Russian people were likely comforted by their firm and determined Acting President. In fact, when a special election was held in March 2000, 52% of Russian voters chose to keep Putin in the Kremlin for a complete eight year term. They were so content as to be unconcerned with his decision to give the post of First Deputy Prime Minister to Mikhail Kasyanov, who previously worked for the Soviet Central Planning Agency.[i] A former Soviet intelligence officer himself, Putin is said to have appointed no fewer than 17 ex-KGB officials to senior positions in his administration.[ii] These appointments were preliminary examples of Putin’s desire to create a government run by those who favor enhancing the powers of the Kremlin. Consolidation of presidential power intensified as Putin established himself at the national level and continues to this day. Gradually, the freedom and transparency enjoyed under Yeltsin are being lessened asRussia once again inches down the road to totalitarianism.
With regional governments losing power to Moscow and the rights of free press, assembly, and expression frequently restricted, one cannot help but question Putin’s intentions.
Such developments are particularly alarming given theRussian Federation’s relatively close relationship with theUnited Statesand the Bush Administration’s emphasis on the spread of democracy across the globe. American leaders have long argued that when democracy is threatened – regardless of where – so is theUnited States. To be sure, our interest inRussiais likely to last due to its role as the world’s second largest exporter of oil and natural gas. As Western markets turn away from the ever-turbulent Middle East and towardsRussiafor their energy needs, it is critical that we understand how this nation is governed. A shift away from democracy under Putin could influence the structure of the Federation’s government for decades to come, thereby affecting U.S.-Russian relations and the ability of theUnited Statesto access Russian energy reserves. Once again, American consumers could find themselves at the mercy of an oil-rich despot.
David P. Solomon is a research intern at the Center for Security Policy and a rising senior at Georgetown University, where he is majoring in Russian Language and minoring in Government.