What is the legacy of Vladimir Putin? Is he the man who returned Russia to its long history of autocracy and persecution? Or will he be better remembered for restoring the economic and geopolitical greatness of the country? In the week before the presidential elections there—in which voters will almost certainly ratify Putin's chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev—we posed the question of Putin's legacy to Russian experts around the world, including a former member of the U.S. National Security Council and a granddaughter of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. They cautioned that Putin's legacy will continue to evolve, as he's set to become prime minister in the next administration and likely to wield behind-the-scenes power. Even so, their responses make for a surprising and timely progress report.
In the West, we have a bad habit of trying to write Russians' history for them. The question we should ask is, "What is Putin's legacy as Russians see it?" Here's how I think their historians will write it.
Putin cannot possibly be evaluated apart from the first post-Soviet decade. For nearly three quarters of Russians, the 1990s meant the collapse of their state and standard of living. It was also seen as a loss of sovereignty at home and abroad. Russians believed that their country was semi-occupied by foreigners—from shock-therapy economists to human-rights advocates. They saw Yeltsin as a U.S. supplicant. Putin changed this. He ended Russia's collapse at home and re-asserted its independence abroad. That's how most Russians see it, and it's an entirely plausible and heartfelt evaluation of Putin's legacy.
But the West (and a few Russians) say the cost has been too high: a loss of democracy and good ties with the U.S. Yet there's an element of historical amnesia here. Democracy began under Gorbachev, not Yeltsin. And de-democratization began under Yeltsin, not Putin. Moreover, in the '90s, the destruction of the middle class by inflation and poverty made further democratization impossible. Today, with standards of living rising, a renewal of democracy is at least possible.
As for U.S-Russia relations, could Putin have made more moves like Gorbachev? Sure. But keep in mind, neither Clinton nor Bush made Reagan-like concessions. For example, Putin helped the U.S. with its first military campaign in Afghanistan, but all he got in return was an expansion of NATO and America's withdrawal from the ABM treaty.
—Stephen Cohen, professor of Russian studies and history at New York University
Lazy Oil Guzzler
Vladimir Putin's legacy is only half-revealed. Putin spent the last eight years rebuilding the influence and control structures of the Kremlin. He extended that control to the commanding heights of the economy, creating national-champion companies controlled by the state.
As a result, three things happened. First, the country has got its self-respect back. Second, the economy has turned around: GDP has grown, wages have increased and poverty is down. Third, Russians have a sense of hope again, a restored sense of optimism about the future.
But the question now is whether Putin and Medvedev will be able to use that control to diversify the economy away from oil and gas dependency. In the past eight years, Russia's economy has fallen into the oil trap: the country became lazy on the back of oil revenues, putting off necessary reforms like modernizing the manufacturing sector, creating a pensions system, tackling corruption, improving legal protections and streamlining the bureaucracy.
That means the hard part is still to come. And the clock is ticking. The government has been relying on high oil prices to meet the rising expectations of its people, and we know that's a dangerous assumption. We need to see a much more active phase of economic reform and diversification over the next four or five years. Only then can we start talking about Putin's legacy.
—Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Russia's URALSIB Bank
Possibly the most important legacy of Putin's eight years is the restoration of respect for the office of the presidency in Russia and pride in the office among Russians. He did that partly through his image and partly, in my view, through sheer force of personality. I've spent, with a group of Kremlin-watchers, three meetings of three to five hours each with him, and he's one of the smartest people I've ever met. He goes for three to five hours with no advisers, no notes and no breaks. His iron will and Swiss-watch mind has allowed him to restore respect for the presidency, which is very important for governing any country. On the other hand, Putin did not promote the growth of political institutions, which is important to long-term stability. But in a nutshell, Russia in 1998 was flat on its back; in 2008 Russia is just flat back.
—Cliff Kupchan, a director at the Eurasia Group and former vice president of The Nixon Center
A Needless Tragedy
Russians are richer today than ever before in their history. But Putin's real legacy is in the political sphere. When he came to power, three television networks—RTR, ORT and NTV—had national reach. RTR was already state-owned, and Putin forcibly acquired control of the others. Smaller stations got the message and gutted their independent news programming. Ultimately, most major Russian national newspapers transferred ownership to Kremlin loyalists.
Putin moved next against regional governments. He established seven supraregional districts, headed primarily by former generals and KGB officers, and assigned them the task of reasserting Moscow's control. Putin then emasculated the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia's Parliament, by removing elected governors and heads of regional legislatures from the seats they would have automatically assumed and replacing them with appointed representatives. And in a fatal blow to Russian federalism, Putin announced in September 2004 that he himself would appoint governors rather than continue the practice of direct elections. Putin also weakened the State Duma, turning this lower house of Parliament into a rubber stamp for Kremlin decisions. Political parties not aligned with the Kremlin are all much weaker today and work in a much more constrained political environment. Elections are a farce.
The tragedy of the Putin era is that none of these autocratic reforms was needed to sustain economic growth, political stability or the president's popularity. In fact, more democracy would have helped fight corruption, protect property and spurred more growth. Yes, the Putin era was economically good for most Russians. But it could have been even better.
—Michael McFaulis a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, professor of political science and director of the Center on Democracy,Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University.
The question of Putin's legacy is a difficult one because he continues to be a strong presence in Russia. And because he handpicked his successor, in a way the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev will determine the legacy of Vladimir Putin, who is all but certain to become Medvedev's prime minister.
But for now, we can say that Putin's legacy is no different than that of the tsars or the general-secretaries of the Soviet Union. Putin's goals were the same as these past leaders and despots: to maintain the idea of Russia's greatness, ensure the territorial integrity of the country's 11 time zones and eliminate dissent. After 1991, there was hope that Russia could become a different country, in which the law, not order, would triumph, but it hasn't: Russia turned back on the promise of freedom and the future. Yeltsin attempted to nurture a free press and democratic institutions. But under Putin, transparency has disappeared, and the communist-type secrecy and unpredictability have become the norm. When Khrushchev replaced Stalin, observers could only guess at his agenda; when Gorbachev came to power, no one knew whether he would turn Stalinist or reformist. Luckily, their leadership resulted in positive changes. But this reliance on the leader's whim, rather than on the legal institutions of democracy, continues to be an enduring and worrisome trend of Russia's political system. Putin is recycling that same paradigm, and we're back to deciphering the Kremlin's tea leaves as the only means to understand the country, in hope that Medvedev's presidency will turn more like Khrushchev's or Gorbachev's rather then Stalin's, Brezhnev's or Putin's for that matter.
—Nina Khrushcheva, granddaughter of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, professor of international affairs at The New School and the author of "Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics"
A Far Better Life
The laserlike focus on kremlin maneuverings by most Western commentators on Russia has overlooked a critical fact: the lives of Russians today are far better than ever. The economy has grown at an average of 6.5 percent annually for the past seven years, giving Russians occupational mobility, higher earnings and an improved standard of living. Yet the West consistently underestimates the prospects for the gradual emergence of a democratic system. A glance at the Moscow scene in the late 1980s and 1990s provides a clue as to why. Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, aimed at loosening the straitjacket of the planned economy, and glasnost, directed at introducing limited electoral politics, conformed to American values. The reformist earthquakes under Boris Yeltsin reinforced the harmony between Russian and American values and interests. But Yeltsin's policies yielded economic disorder and public discontent. By the time he resigned in December 1999, his approval rating had plummeted below 5 percent. Given the Sturm und Drang of the Yeltsin era, Putin's systematic extension of federal authority under his two terms was almost predictable. Russians, his policies said, will sort out among themselves the pace of democratic change in their own country. Now one question remains: can the nation evolve into a democracy? In the short term, perhaps not. But over time, the improvement in the lives of ordinary Russians can set the stage for their active participation in political decision making.
—Padma Desai is Harriman Professor of Comparative Economic Systems and director of the Center for Transition Economies at Columbia University.
Even if we could look into his eyes, unlike George W. Bush, most of us would have trouble gaining a sense of Vladimir Putin's soul. What we would see is a leader who guided his country out of near-bankruptcy in August 1998 to its status as an energy superpower. Today, less than a decade later, Russia is back. Its once empty treasury is now filled with the world's third largest hoard of foreign currencies and gold. This is not due to Putin. It is because Russia nearly doubled its oil production and exports when oil prices jumped from $15 a barrel oil prices in 1998 to $100 today. But if Putin cannot take credit for Russia's full treasury, he nonetheless managed to regain control of most of the country's oil and gas companies and transform them into national champions serving Russia's national needs. No wonder close to 80 percent of Russians give him credit for the doubling of the country's GDP and reducing poverty. It is also true that corruption has worsened. Putin has cracked down on one form of corruption while creating another in the process. He took property from the original oligarchs, but he turned most of it over to his former comrades at the KGB. Now you have people who are in the government and simultaneously have positions and ownership of some of those companies. A new class of oligarchs has emerged.
—Marshall I. Goldman, senior scholar at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies
Vladimir the Lucky
President Putin had a tremendous stroke of luck: the oil prices have grown about five times during his tenure. Russia's rebound is indeed impressive. The economy has steadily grown, people's living standards are higher than ever. Once again Russia is reckoned with in the world.
Putin also used his good fortunes to recentralize the government. He gained control over the national television, local governors, the legislature and the judiciary. To the people, Putin offered a nonparticipation pact: the government delivers, and they don't meddle in politics. While early on he mostly drew on sophisticated manipulation, closer to the end of Putin's term his regime increasingly resorted toward police practices.
Putin put in a loyal successor and will himself remain a leading political player. He is anxious that Russia stay his course. But his critics warn that in a system of deinstitutionalized politics economic development will not be sustained.
—Masha Lipman, editor of Pro et Contra, a publication of the Carnegie Moscow Center
Putin's presidency could go down in history as the Great Restoration. After the profound national humiliation of the 1990s—a "Time of Troubles" in the minds of the vast majority of Russians—Putin has overseen an unexpectedly rapid economic recovery, rebuilt an authoritative state, returned Russia to the world stage, and restored Russian pride, minus the bombast of Soviet ideology and with a focus on the pragmatic (some would say cynical) pursuit of wealth and power. Circumstance and good fortune—high energy prices, disarray in the West—may have eased the task, but the outcome was not inevitable: eight years ago, many in the West had written Russia off as a serious world power, and many Russians feared they were right. Putin has changed that. Although many may find Putin's methods unsavory, we need to recognize that his leadership was critical to the resurgence of Russia, and, as a result, we can no longer ignore Russia as we seek to promote our own interests around the globe.
—Thomas Graham, former member of the U.S. National Security Council (2004-2007) and a senior director at Kissinger Associates Inc.
A 'Gentleman of Leisure'?
Vladimir Putin is changing the name of his job but is still staying as a national leader, so his legacy, to put it mildly, is far from being complete. However, he accepted the job of prime minister not because it was a choice but because it was a necessity. It is a very challenging job because if inflation goes up, if energy prices go down or if there are any economic problems, it is the prime minister, not the president, who is blamed for these things. Putin has made it very clear that he does not want to work 16-hour days and as prime minister he would start delegating responsibility to others. If this happens, it is likely that Medvedev's entourage will tell him, "Mr. President, you can see that the prime minister is becoming a gentleman of leisure and you have to exercise your own authority."
—Dimitri K. Simes, president of The Nixon Center and author of "After the Collapse: Russia Seeks its Place as a Great Power"