I helped select Vladimir Putin to succeed Russia’s first democratically elected President, Boris Yeltsin. Because KGB/Mafia structures now rule Russia and manipulate the judicial system, it is assumed that Yeltsin wanted to handpick his successor in order to avoid future prosecution. But we who chose Putin were charged with finding someone to continue Yeltsin’s reforms, not shield him and his family.
Indeed, Yeltsin was fearless, and sought not his personal survival, but the survival of the democratic idea that he introduced to Russia. Yet that idea is now under threat because of the successor we chose.
I don’t deny my responsibility for supporting Putin. We weren’t close friends, but he and I worked together in critical situations, and I never doubted his sincerity. Putin acts according to his convictions. The problem is that his convictions – including his belief that Russia can prosper only if it is ruled by a single source of power – are wrong. This gross error is leading Russia to political ruin.
Of course, no one holds high office without making mistakes, even fundamental ones, and this is especially true in tumultuous periods. Yeltsin was no exception, but he recognized his errors. When he retired on New Year’s Eve 1999, for example, he asked forgiveness for launching the war in Chechnya. Putin, by contrast, seems incapable of recognizing and admitting his mistakes, and persists in a policy long after its failure is visible to the world.
One of Yeltsin’s errors was his failure to put moral priorities at the head of his reform agenda. Russia should have repented for Stalinism and the gulag system. The whole nation, with no exception, should have repented, the way the Germans have repented since 1945.
This failure matters, for it allowed Putin’s unqualified belief in central authority to lead to the recapture of the state by the security services. Indeed, a direct result of national repentance for the gulag era should have been the banning of the communist party and the disqualification from political office of those who worked in the KGB.
Although such political screenings are complicated in postcommunist societies, where both victimhood and collaboration were so widespread – and the lines between them so often blurred – a sound solution could have been found, as in the Czech Republic. Doing nothing left Russia’s security structures unscathed and able to make a political comeback, which they have now achieved. The political resurrection of KGB structures under Putin, and their efforts to silence dissent, has once again turned Russia into a country of defectors.
It is impossible to silence independent politicians and independent media without choking off independent sources of money, which is why Putin’s Kremlin has concentrated its attacks on the so-called “oligarchs.” Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s arrest and trial were orchestrated for precisely this reason. By removing independent sources of money, the security services that dominate the Kremlin hope to destroy independent political life in Russia.
Without independent bases of thought, a climate of fear is taking hold. But fear is not only degrading; it makes for poor governance. Yeltsin intuitively understood that fear and top-down, centralized decision-making were no way to rule a modern country, and he therefore insisted on reforming relations between citizens and the state.
Putin still doesn’t understand that a centralized political system is as incapable of comprehending and correcting mistakes now as it was in the Soviet era. Not being a well-educated man Putin is, in full and deep sincerity, leading Russia toward the same disintegration that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet state.
People are beginning to realize this. They see that Putin’s desire to create a strong and effective modern state cannot be realized, because a modern state is governed not from above, but by an informed citizenry that forces its rulers to acknowledge and correct their mistakes.
Putin, too, also seems to suspect his regime’s impotence. This is one reason why Russia has become so aggressive with its neighbors, Ukraine and Georgia, and seeks to maintain a military presence in places like Transdniestria, the breakaway region of Moldova. By throwing its weight around in Russia’s near abroad, the Kremlin thinks that it can convince Russians back home of its omnipotence.
Given the neutered debates in Russia, and the Kremlin’s ability to manipulate elections, regime change is the only option left for those who want to preserve the democratic idea in Russia. There is no use holding onto illusions. Those who oppose Putin must decide what they want and declare that, if the regime fails to uphold the constitution, they have the right to force it to do so by any means necessary.
Today, the question of power in Russia can no longer be decided solely at the ballot box. As in Ukraine, Lebanon, and Kyrgizstan, it will be decided in the streets.