Shadow Government

Putin's czarist vision

Vladimir Putin revealed last week his vision of the new Russia, one of enhanced authoritarianism by means of a new corporatism and in the context of continued "managed democracy." He and his supporters stress that he is trying to ensure stability in case of future threats to Russian unity. The opposition claims it is nothing more than an electoral strategy to shore up his and United Russia's declining approval ratings. But the "All-Russia People's Front" is really his bid to take Russia back to the future. With this project he reveals what many observers have worried about all along: that Putin unquestionably desires to make Russia into a neo-czarist state, albeit an electoral one and succeeding at modernization where the czars failed. If he gets his way, the democratization of Russia will perhaps have taken a permanent step backwards. And this will tell us as much about the Russian people as it will about Putin and the elites who have ensconced themselves in power.

The "unified civil front," as Prime Minister Putin describes it, is to be an alliance of parties, unions, non-aligned activists, women's groups, veterans' organizations and youth groups; importantly, to be included also is the Russian Orthodox Church. In short, everyone he can gather into the fold, the better to direct their civic and political energies in service of his strategy. Up to a sixth of the national Duma seats would be reserved in this scheme for representatives from these groups. There is a need in Russian politics, says Putin, for "new blood" and "fresh ideas" to face a potential national dilemma. He does not specify what the dilemma is and none seems on the horizon, what with oil prices at record levels and his foreign policies bearing fruit. So we can discount his official rationale. That leaves us with two more possibilities, one being that it is simply an electoral strategy for a nervous former president who'd like to return to office.

This makes more sense, mainly because President Dimitry Medvedev is refusing to be the lackey he was intended to be. Medvedev, to whatever degree he is serious about it -- and that is a big question -- talks too much for Putin's comfort about the need to face West instead of East, and about the need for liberal reforms. While both men have seen their poll numbers fall, Putin's are the higher and he remains easily the most popular politician in the country; it can pay off handsomely to methodically crush all serious opposition.

Nevertheless, United Russia has lost a few important local elections, and with Russians seemingly tired of years of the same old corrupt politicians running things, and now with the complaint of dipping economic fortunes, Putin might be trying to create a dynamic that ensures he wins the battle royal with Medvedev should the latter renege on the assumed pre-arranged return of Putin to the top of the presidential ticket for United Russia. Putin the politician knows that he is best placed to capitalize on a wave of nationalism spawned and encouraged at the level of civil society. Obviously true democratic reformers will not be welcomed in the new All-Russia front. The real "new blood" and "fresh ideas" that Putin should be looking for to revivify Russian politics is coursing through the veins and brains of those dissidents and opposition figures who keep winding up in jail or dead.

But there is that other reason Putin is calling for a popular front and a uniting of every civic and social force he can collect under his banner: it is the way to take Russia back to the age and politics he is most comfortable with, that of czarist Russia, albeit with a twist. Putin has demonstrated after ten years in power that what he is really comfortable with is a Russia that looks and acts a lot more like that of the czars who practiced political and philosophical absolutism. The czars established control over the domestic scene by subjecting all societal groupings and activities to the service of the divine right state. Putin is not a czar de jure but he can be one de facto. This is a minor detail for one so determined to rule as he sees fit. So by defining the nature of the electoral system in terms of who can run and who controls the economy, he's got the electoral problem essentially solved. And this assured control at home means it is much easier to control the "near abroad" and exert influence over world affairs.

While the announcement of the All-Russia front confirms many of our concerns regarding Putin, unfortunately it probably tells us much about the Russian people that is painful to face.

In the early years of post-Soviet democratization, the late Irving Kristol wrote an insightful essay in the Wall Street Journal about the future of Russia. Though it was a short opinion piece, it was profound. He said that the Russians will not return to communism, nor would they likely opt for Western liberal democracy. But having enjoyed the exercise of their power at the ballot box, they would not give that up. They would likely simply desire the maintenance of a society based on law and order whose government continues to improve their standard of living.

From today's vantage point, we can say Kristol had it about right. The vast majority of Russians for the more than twenty years since the fall of the Soviet regime have simply accepted first a chaotic democracy in tandem with a kleptocracy and now a "managed democracy" that continues the kleptocracy and adds bullying of neighbors and friendliness toward terror states. The liberal democratic opposition bravely condemns these things, but it is very small in number, and that is not so simply because it is repressed. It is so because Russians seem okay with what their leaders are doing as long as the standard of living-or the prospects for it--are better than before. The law and order part? They don't seem so outraged at the extra-legal means by which the opposition is oppressed, so maybe the order part is what is most important.  

Does it have to be this way? Will Putin's plans succeed? Is Medvedev really a liberal reformer that we can get behind and see a turn for the better? We've been down this road before with Yeltsin, so let's not put too many eggs in one basket. But the West must continue to hold Russia and its leaders to account for the universal principles of freedom and democracy. Democratization is obviously harder in Russia than many of us had hoped, but it is worth working for, even if there seems to be only a handful of people who love liberty. It seemed that way in Poland when all we had was a trade union activist to support.

NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Bin Laden's death and the al Qaeda debates, part one

The raid last week on Bin Laden's lair in Abbotabad did more than kill al-Qa'ida's leader.  In what might be one of the greatest intelligence coups of all time, the SEALs also seized dozens of thumb drives, at least five hard drives from computers, and a great deal of printed documentation.  Preliminary examinations of the materials that were seized suggest that they contain a wealth of information about al Qaeda and bin Laden that will give U.S. analysts new insights into the group and its leader.

Beyond the urgent matter of uncovering active plots against the United States and other nations, the treasure trove of new documents might be able to answer a set of vital strategic questions currently dividing the professional community that studies al Qaeda.  For the past ten years, scholars and experts both inside and outside government have struggled to understand what al Qaeda is, how big the group is, its strategies and objectives.  There is also the problem of how much command and control authority bin Laden had over al Qaeda members and jihadists around the globe.  All these issues have important implications for U.S. policies in the continuing war on terror and, depending on the answers that the thumb drives and computers provide, could lead to a far-reaching reconsideration of our own strategies and tactics.

It would be far too simplistic to suggest that there are only two possible positions on these issues, but two views have tended to dominate discussion amongst experts.  For the next three blogposts, I will describe as concisely as possible these positions and their implications and then suggest how the new information might transform U.S. policy if the materials seized last week are as rich and revealing as the first examinations suggest.

The Majority Position

The vast majority of experts on al Qaeda and bin Laden have held a series of analytical positions and assumptions that profoundly influence their reading of the threat posed by the group.  Perhaps the best proponent of this position is Marc Sageman, who has written several books on the topic, including Leaderless Jihad and Understanding Terror Networks.  On al Qaeda itself, the majority position holds that the group is fundamentally an inspiration for jihadist activity.  It is small in size (perhaps 350-400 members), has little direct control over the so-called affiliates (such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), and uses ideology and rhetoric to inspire attacks by individuals.  The main purpose and goal of the group is to attack the United States, for which it is using its safe haven in Northern Pakistan or Afghanistan to train a few cells.  In general, the majority position has seen al Qaeda as a tenuous organization held together by personal loyalties; a group that does not seem to have a coherent strategy beyond striking the U.S.; and one that is more involved in Pakistan than it is in Afghanistan.

If this position is correct then the implications are profound:  al Qaeda is an absolute failure, since it has been unable to carry out any successful attacks on the U.S. (its main objective), it has been unable to attract the Muslim community to its cause, and its size and influence have shrunk since 9/11, primarily due to U.S. strikes and attrition.  This position also forces the United States to reconsider its commitment to a war in Afghanistan, since it implies that the problem in that country is not al Qaeda, but rather the Taliban, and that it does not make sense to continue to fight a war against a group of less than 500 people.  Pakistan, however, demands further involvement, as al Qaeda seems far more connected to that country and the deteriorating situation throughout the nation might leave its nuclear weapons vulnerable.

The majority position also has views of bin Laden that are significant for U.S. policy, arguing that he was an inspirational figurehead rather than a commander in chief.  His speeches and rhetoric were used to convince others to carry out attacks for him and in al Qaeda's name, but he was incapable (and perhaps did not even desire) to exercise any meaningful command and control over people or groups other than his own.  Instead he aspired to convince individuals to carry out multiple attacks on the U.S. and American allies around the world.  His tenuous ties with other groups, including the Taliban led by Mullah Umar, were based on his personality alone, and he claimed authorities over local organizations like al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Shabaab in Somalia, and elsewhere that he did not have.

Once again, the implications of this view are significant: bin Laden might be all that is holding al Qaeda together, making an appeal to the rest of the Muslim world to carry out attacks against the U.S., or keeping other groups (including the Taliban) working with al Qaeda.  At the same time, this position suggests that local jihadist groups have their own reasons for declaring war on their countries and their own grievances or grounds for hatred that will motivate them to fight on.

Tomorrow I'll continue with a look at the minority opinion about al Qaeda and bin Laden, and finish the next day with the profound implications for U.S. policies of both views in the light of bin Laden's death.

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images