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What to make of a president who’d rather crack the whip

by Andrey Borodaevskiy

These days, as never before, my thoughts are drawn toward the impressive and controversial figure of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. There is no doubt that, for the time being, this person is playing a key role both in Russian events and in world affairs.

Some months ago, unexpectedly for the international political and diplomatic circles, it was Putin who proposed a solution to the stockpiling and use of chemical weapons in Syria — no matter how palliative and temporary this solution might turn out.

A little later he managed to “persuade” Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych to freeze — most probably, once again temporarily — the cooperation agreement with the European Union, a step at least partly taken in exchange for a $15 billion credit needed by this “brother” country struggling against a severe budget crisis.

It is also Putin, more than anybody else on this planet, who is eager to transform the current Olympics into a success story — to prove to himself and to the whole world that it was bright idea to arrange this sports merry-go-round in the subtropics.

The Winter Games in Sochi rank very high on the personal agenda of our president. What is important to stress is that he, by all appearances, has an agenda based on his particular view of the world, which predestines practically all his major political steps and public statements.

Another mega-project of Putin is the formation of a Eurasian Union. Obviously he believes it to be the second-best choice after eventual rebuilding the Soviet Union, which is clearly out of his reach.

Hence the hard feelings in connection with the very idea of Ukraine-Europe rapprochement and with the concrete steps of President Yanukovych in the direction of an association agreement with the EU — a step that would bring Ukraine into the “great European zone of democracy.”

This author is not the only Russian citizen spending hours at night pondering our president, his background and personal history, his psychological and intellectual profile, his preferences, prejudices, biases and each idée-fixe.

Boris Akunin (the pen name of successful Russian writer B. Chkhartishvili, which stems from his first professional occupation as Japanese translator) wrote some weeks ago that “the whole country has gradually become collectively psychoanalytical, specializing on the inner world of one single patient.”

As for the diagnosis, Akunin is clear-cut in his judgment: It is only amputination that can radically help in this particular case. But how is such a result achieved when the laws concerning elections, formation of parties, activities of protesters — the entire established political order with its twisted “rules of the game” — do not leave any hope for personal change at the very top in the foreseeable future?

In principle, the events in Ukraine offer a hint of an alternative solution. We still do not know the outcome, but we have already seen that tough mass resistance can lead to a recall or at least a revision of anti-democratic laws and to an invitation (albeit stillborn) of opposition leaders to join the government: in short, to a certain dialogue between the powers that be and the people.

The chances of Yanukovych being re-elected in 2015, or even remaining president until the election are rather weak.

Yet, in Russia, another perspective seems more realistic — life with and under the existing authoritarian system, with and under the same gradually aging person at the state helm. In this situation, which may remind us of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s times but even more of the final years of Francisco Franco’s rule in Spain, an acute task for the nation and its intellectual vanguard is influencing the key figure in question to move in the least damaging and/or most promising direction.

In his life, Putin has had to deal with different circumstances and many complicated problems. For one, he has had to build up his physical shape and social position to grow up and survive in severe circumstances of communist Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg). This has made him a rough player, though with a pronounced inferiority complex (two extremes that often live together in a kind of symbiosis).

Later he worked for years with Anatoly Sobchak, the first mayor of St. Petersburg and a consistent democrat, a well-educated person with profound knowledge of legal matters and with a sound vision of Russia’s problems. Then he collaborated with and was chosen heir by Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, a man with a strong will, generous soul and enough understanding of the benefits of democracy.

All this leaves some hope that, latently, Putin might possess a sufficient adjustment potential.

One may well share Akunin’s regret concerning the fact that “all of us are hostages of the processes that happen (or skid) in the ruler’s mind.” It is bad and shameful that Russia’s present and future depend on a single person to such a degree. This abnormal situation speaks not so much of his strength as of the weakness of civil society. Thus one of the foremost national tasks nowadays is the strengthening of Russia’s civil society, its institutions and its public voice.

Putin wants a strong sovereign and prosperous Russia, but he obviously believes our people are incapable of deciding for themselves and need a shepherd with a whip — in other words, an almighty and all-knowing autocrat.

He also erroneously believes that in the age of rapidly proceeding globalization it is possible for Russia to rely on meager domestic financial and human resources, and on collaboration with immediate neighbors from among the former Soviet republics while perhaps considering the social and economic recolonization of vast territories stretching behind the Urals (which this author views as absolutely necessary as soon as possible).

It is really a very important task to make the president understand that some of his judgments might be wrong.

Seemingly such mental adjustment can be stimulated via a tough but constructive stance by the political opposition in its dialogue with the powers that be, through well-reasoned appeals from our intellectual vanguard based on the results of objective research, and with the help of tactful but scrupulous debates about Russia’s domestic situation and foreign policy initiated by our democratic partners worldwide. Here is a concrete example:

Let us presume that Putin’s homophobic stance is a sincere one and that its roots can be found in his personal Orthodox belief. Does it mean that we must abstain from ardently opposing his homophobic and antidemocratic legislative initiatives?

Let’s recall a banal truth: It is much more clever and attractive to try to enter the annals of history as a dynamic democratic leader, a modernizer and innovator who strived to keep abreast of the democratic world, relied on people’s creative potential and was open-minded toward international economic cooperation than to be remembered as a self-centered autocrat with an obsolete economic agenda and a rigid, not fully realistic worldview.

It is never too late to take advantage of this plain wisdom.

Andrey Borodaevskiy, an expert on world economy and international economic relations, was a professor at Seinan Gakuin University, Fukuoka, from 1994 to 2007. He can be emailed at annabo36@mail.ru.