In March, 2000 Vladimir Putin became the second elected president of Russia. That's the good news. On the flip side, the rampant corruption and lawlessness in post communist Russia has the rest of the world worried about a former secret police colonel becoming the leader of the planet's largest nation. Why? Because Russia has a huge nuclear arsenal. The pessimists see a new Evil Empire in the making, ready and eager to threaten its neighbors with military force. The optimists see a strong man capable of clearing out the crooks so the democrats can thrive. The realists wonder how long it will take Putin and his crew will become as corrupt and ineffective as their predecessors.
While Russia still has thousands of nuclear warheads, and missiles to deliver them, the rest of its armed forces are a mess. For the first time in history, the U.S. army is larger than Russia's. The Russian navy has literally rotted away. The air force has bought no new aircraft since 1992 and most of the remainder are rarely used, or maintained. Pilot capability went up in 2000 only because of the extensive use of warplanes in Chechnya.
As a result of all this rot, Russia now publicly relies on its nukes to defend itself against foreign threats. After the cold war ended, we all thought the threat of nuclear war would diminish. It did, for a while. But now the Russians have their finger back on the button. And unemployed Russian nuclear scientists are all over the world looking for work.
What is to be done?
Russians want a strong man in power. A czar, if you will. No, the Romanov family won't be brought back. Neither will the communist commissars return to power. But the one form of government that has worked in Russia when the situation looked grim was, "a strong man." The Russians have known nothing else. It's first taste of democracy during the 90s gave them a society overrun by gangsters and owned by robber barons who were once communist big shots. Living standards, longevity, and public safety have all declined.
There is also a generational divide. Those who came of age in the 80s and 90s look to the West and are more enthusiastic about free speech and free markets. This is where the democrats are the strongest. But the older generation, and several generations before them, have know nothing but communism. These are the Sovoks, a group that fondly remembers when the Soviet Union was a feared superpower and the state took care of everything. This is why the communist candidate received 30 percent of the March, 2000 presidential elections. But few want to bring back the Soviet Union. What people want is security and safety without the secret police and bureaucrats telling everyone what to do..
When the Soviet Union disappeared, so did the restrictions on taking a close look at Soviet history. Long whispered rumors that the czar's government was far more liberal and gentle than the communists now became obvious fact. The communists killed more Russians in a year than the czars did in a century. It also turned out that the czars were not so economically and politically backward as portrayed by seven decades of communist propaganda. Russia had never been as free and wealthy as the rest of Europe, but in the last two decades of czarist rule democracy and rapid economic growth were being introduced. The czars had many faults, but these paled in comparison to those of the communists.
It's not just a clever turn of phrase when the current presidential system in Russia is called "czarist." The president of Russia has far more power than heads of state in any other democracy. This was no accident, for even when putting together a democracy, the Russians could not resist giving one man a lot of power. Americans often misunderstand this. All democracies are different. Live in another democracy for a while and this becomes plainly evident. Expecting Russian democrats to be clones of American ones is unrealistic. It's not going to happen. That said, part of the problem in Russia is that they appear to have adopted the worst features of American and European democracies.
The one real fear about Russia is that the desire for order will produce a dictatorship. Unlike elected leaders, dictators tend to use muscle on their neighbors, and a threatening foreign policy in general. Creating external threats have always been a dictators handy tool for keeping his subjects in line. So far, the Russians have been patient with their first foray into democracy. The elections have been free of rampant tampering. There have been plenty of candidates. But the Westernization of Russian society also brought with it the worst aspects of media manipulation. The robber barons own most of the media and have been blunt in their backing of candidates they feel will keep them solvent and out of jail. The recently elected president Putin has indicated that he would go after the corruption, at all levels. Taking on the many organized crime groups is one thing (even though many of these have connections in business and government organizations), but the robber barons are another matter. The robber barons have lots of hired guns, in addition to enormous TV, print and radio holdings. They control sufficient financial assets to cripple, at least temporarily, the Russian economy. But they don't have an army, and the armed forces are apparently not for sale. In times past, the czars rarely had to worry about a disloyal army. This became something of a Russian tradition. Putin has gone out of his way to cultivate the troops. Just like the czars. Putin, while acting president, made sure back pay and pensions were taken care of. A very popular move that required money be taken from crooks and corrupt officials. The people always attributed anything good that happened to the czar, the "little father." Putin is five foot five. Many Russians think of their president as an elected, temporary, king. They probably got that idea from watching, through the haze of communist propaganda, American presidents for seventy years.
Will Putin become the 23rd czar, or the first victim of a second Stalin?