Or: Can democratic reform be entrusted to a former agent of the Soviet secret police?
Boris Yeltsin took pains to present himself as a new breed of Russian democrat, writes Financial Times Moscow bureau chief Jack (The French Exception, not reviewed). But Yeltsin took even greater pains to create “a supra-presidential system,” engineered a constitution that gave most powers to himself, and allowed him to designate his successor. That man, Vladimir Putin, has taken the challenge of reform seriously enough, Jack suggests, especially given his nation’s lack of peaceful oppositional politics, even while playing both sides against an elusive middle and asserting “the restoration and clear reaffirmation of pride in the Soviet Union, stripped of its former ideology.” Putin has weathered all kinds of storms, using the “unexpectedly popular” mess in Chechnya much as President Bush has used 9/11, forging alliances with labor leaders, going after the privileged elite for tax evasion and money laundering, and attempting to set reforms in motion to get workers paid and move things along. He has also made missteps, especially with regard to international relations: drawing close to the US, for instance, instead of the European Union, “much easier . . . if only because it was dealing with a single group of interlocutors, and a more consistent message,” then drawing away to strike a pose of leadership at the start of the Iraq war. Though he evenhandedly gives credit and assigns demerits to the leader, Jack attributes some of Putin’s success to luck—but more to Putin’s ability to use his luck effectively and judiciously, proving in the bargain to be “a far more reliable partner than Yeltsin, with a more realistic view of his country’s capabilities.” That luck is likely to hold, Jack says: Though the signs are clear that reforms will continue without greater democracy, at least the Russian economy is looking up.
Now, if only Putin would dispense with designating his successor. A clear-eyed, highly readable look at modern Russia, with all its ongoing enigmas and mysteries.