Quick Take: How Putin became Russia's "forever leader"

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Yes, still in the middle of coronavirus, but thought I'd give you a couple of my thoughts on Russia. Part of the world that I cut my teeth on as a political scientist, way back in the eighties and nineties. And now Putin is a president for life, or at least he gets to be president until 2036, gets another couple of terms. The constitutional amendments that he reluctantly allowed to be voted on across Russia, passed easily, some 76% approval. And so now both in China and in Russia, term limits get left behind all for the good of the people, of course. So that they can have the leaders that they truly deserve. Yes, I'm being a little sarcastic here. It's sad to see. It's sad to see that the Americans won the Cold War in part, not just because we had a stronger economy and a stronger military, but actually because our ideas were better.

Because when those living in the former Soviet Union and the Eastern Block looked at the West, and looked at the United States, they saw that our liberties, they saw that our economy, was something that they aspired to and was actually a much better way of giving opportunities to the average citizen, than their own system afforded. And that helped them to rise up against it.


That's what led to the collapse. That's why the West won the Cold War. And yet now, the Russians are now being governed by a leader who has fewer checks on his power internally, frankly, than Khrushchev or Brezhnev did in the Soviet days. And who is strongly opposed to the United States, to the transatlantic Alliance, and is doing everything he can to try to take advantage of divisions. Both inside those societies and across the West in general. First of all, I mean, do I accept that the Russian people actually want Putin? No, not really. Independent election institutions there said that the elections themselves, this referendum was rigged. It wasn't free and fair. There is of course, virtually no open media in Russia. The only opposition political parties are those that are allowed by the Kremlin to exist. So it's functionally a one party state. Also, in a number of regions, you had local authorities that were offering prizes to get people to go and vote.

I mean, the whole thing was kind of a charade. It's interesting that Putin thinks you need to even bother with a vote. Because I mean, it's not as if he actually, in any way, is accountable to his people. But he does think that the rubber stamp provides some level of legitimacy. It was like the show trials, in the old Soviet days. You wanted to pretend that people were getting a trial, because it shows that the people do indeed claim that this is their leader. And so you don't have a chance to do anything about it because of course, yeah, you went out and voted for Putin, didn't you, didn't you? But I mean, I think the more depressing thing is that the fact that the West had opportunities when the Soviet Union collapsed, you had president Yeltsin and a cabinet that really wanted to work with the West and the United States.

They were interested in joining NATO. They were interested in a Western free market. And rather than the United States, and the West providing the kind of economic benefits that would have allowed them to more functionally stand up their economy, we instead gave them some advice on shock therapy that they weren't ready for. And so anyone that was attached to power was facilitated in basically stripping clean, any capital inputs that existed in the country, to taking them out or keeping them for themselves.

You also had NATO enlargement that went right up to Russia's borders, but the NATO Russia Council that was established to give the Russians an opportunity to see what Russian membership would be like, was a worthless and weak organization. And there was never any intention of really allowing the Russians, and even the Ukrainians and Georgians, given candidates status. You had talk of multiple pipelines and integrating the Russian economy, but what the Americans really did was Baku-Ceyhan and worked very hard to build pipelines to the Caucasus, to central Asia, across the Caspian that would bring that energy to the West and bypass the Russians.

You had European Union enlargement, and an unwillingness to allow the Ukrainians, for example, to be in both the Eurasian economic union and to have candidate status in the European union. It was forced to be either one or the other. That was something demanded by Poland, went along by the Germans and the French, and made it an awful lot harder for the Ukrainians to get their economy in order. All of those things, making the Russians feel like the West was interested in much more influence in the former Russian sphere of influence, but wasn't really very interested in bringing the Russians along themselves at all. Now, I don't think this was done intentionally. I don't think the Americans wanted the Russians to be in permanent decline. I don't think they were trying to rub their nose in ignominy and defeat. Rather, I think the Americans didn't care.

I think the level of interest in helping to rebuild the Russians was pretty low. This was already a country that had forgotten World War Two. This was not a country that was interested in providing lots of cash for defeated enemies. Instead, it was looking for a peace dividend. That's the way it was discussed under Clinton. You're not fighting the Cold War, that money can go to the United States, and you don't have to think longterm about the benefits you might have from having a more integrated global order. Well, either way, I mean yeah, look. It wasn't just the Americans fault, of course. Russia was badly governed. Yeltsin turned out to be a drunkard, who towards the end, barely showed up to make decisions. A lot of people around him were ineffective and there were lots of claims of corruption. And when Putin shows up to take over, and he's seen as somebody who's both like a nationalist and a patriot, but also had worked with Sobchak when he was back in not pre-Petersburg, Leningrad as a deputy mayor.

So maybe he'd do a little bit of both. Everyone came on board and said, "Hey, he's not the guy that we'd love, but he's good enough." And in fact, back then, I even wrote a piece with Boris Nemtsov, who was later assassinated outside the Kremlin, just a few years ago saying, "Well, Putin is not the guy that we'd love, but given the situation we're in right now, probably the best we can do." But that's kind of a sad story. The pragmatism that's required when you make mistakes and when opportunities aren't taken on and instead they're lost. And here we are in 2020, we have President Trump in the United States. We have an election that also will be claimed to be rigged by an awful lot of people. We have American institutions that are no longer seen as exemplars for many other democracies around the world, not to mention an authoritarian state like Russia.

The average Russian citizen may not be happy about Putin for life, but they don't feel like they have anyone else to look to either, that would be a better model for them. I mean, yeah, sure. Maybe Canada, but it's not exactly a big enough and powerful enough to move the needle. So just worth talking about that as we think back to 1991, and Soviet collapse and we look ahead to what's happening. Just today as Putin is leader forever. See how we got here, and a little bit of why humanity should be doing better.
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