See it like Putin

Russia’s attitude to events in Syria and her stated determination to respect the viewpoints of both sides in that conflict is a cause for concern and reflection. It is, however, no more than another manifestation of President Putin’s aversion to the idea of any independence, for either his allies or his own citizens, says Maxim Trudolyubov

It has become clear that Vladimir Putin’s efforts are directed less at trying to keep President Assad in power than at engineering a parting of the ways with minimal losses.  Assad can’t be dumped immediately because that would be construed as a willingness to make concessions to the West or his remaining allies, which he cannot do. He will anyway need to forge a relationship with the possible new government of Syria.

Dependence at home and abroad

Putin’s strategy is not exactly popular with the rest of the world, and quite possibly even counterproductive. But it is a strategy. His foreign policy and alliances are governed by a principled aversion to independence.  If Assad ceases to be ‘Putin’s man’ in the Middle East, then he’ll become someone else’s man.  He will be dependent on someone else, and that presents a serious problem.

'President Putin and his colleagues have been trying to limit the independence of their citizens within Russia for many years.'

‘For Putin and his cronies, there’s no such thing as genuine independence: if they are not paying, then someone else is. That’s the way of the world.’

Putin’s domestic policies are governed by the same principle. ‘The folk wisdom is that “he who pays the piper calls the tune” and that’s a fact,’ as Putin said to the head of the Presidential Human Rights Council Mikhail Fedotov. ‘No one throws money around just like that.’ Fedotov had expressed doubts about the fairness of branding non-commercial organisations receiving funding from abroad as ‘foreign agents.’ Putin didn’t agree with him, and the law has already been passed: any civil society organisation in receipt of foreign funds now has to call itself an ‘agent.’ 

Putin is very fond of this folk wisdom and often quotes it. Moreover, there is a degree of truth in it: people are employed and, yes, they receive money for the services they offer, especially if they’re lawyers or lobbyists.  But the formula ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’ cannot be used to encompass all types of human relations.

For Putin and his cronies, the piper principle is a universal truth. In their world there’s no such thing as genuine independence: if they are not paying, then someone else is. That’s the way of the world.

The chief provider

President Putin and his colleagues have been trying to limit the independence of their citizens within Russia for many years. The label ‘foreign agents’ for non-commercial organisations is only the latest idea. Other ideas have been around for longer, such as, for instance, the plan to nationalise the funded component of their citizens’ pension savings. This issue is currently being considered as part of the efforts to solve the problem of the shortfall in the Pension Fund of Russia. It will probably be solved by transferring the funded component of pensions to the state as a way of closing the gap, rather than by broadening the options for saving, which would allow people more freedom of choice in deciding their personal finances. No one in Russia should be under any illusion as to who is the chief provider.

Other ideas are even older, such as the state’s continued refusal to uphold the right to private property. Protected private property would, after all, be a basis for independence. To uphold that right, courts would have to be independent; the independence of the courts would presuppose the supremacy of the law over force and money, which, in its turn, would mean the police and other law-enforcers having to observe the law. The law-enforcement system is kept in its antediluvian state for good reason: it would therwise be upholding citizens’ rights, i.e. their independence.

Relations between Moscow and the regions are essentially part of the same question of independence — not of individuals from the state but of whole sections of the country from Moscow. What the regions themselves want is partial independence, which would simply allow them to take more independent decisions.

‘While Putin is in power [there will be no institutional development], because the existence of such independent institutions, which cannot be controlled by a telephone call, contradicts his worldview.'

In all the above cases the issue is material independence. Spiritual independence is a topic for another time and outside the remit of this article.

Inside or outside the tent?

The aversion to independence is inseparable from the logical instincts of the security services and the criminal world, which can be summed up as ‘us and them,’ or inside/outside the tent.  This is the origin of the dogma of dependence: dependent – one of ours, independent – not.

This apparently simple rule is the source of many paradoxical consequences in Russian domestic policy. ‘Our man’ can be an appalling manager, completely lose his reputation, steal, or kill people by dangerous driving.  But he is still one of us. And this is how managers in state corporations, mayors and governors remain in their posts, when they should be prosecuted for their activities. The same rule explains the way decisions are taken to support companies: at times of crisis the Russian government will always support the shareholders, rather than the employees of the bankrupt companies. In essence, therefore, the state is paying the inefficient owners so that they can remain at the helm of socially significant enterprises.

Such businessmen may be marked as ‘not one of us’ by their money, investments, home, family and citizenship. But they are actually inside the tent, in the sense that Putin both understands and controls the source of their income (the production and export of metals, for instance). It works the other way round too: under the new law governing demonstrations, Russian citizens incautious enough to go out on to the square of their home town at the wrong time will be at risk of losing both liberty and money.

'The dependence principle also means that Putin is implacably opposed to institutional development, which presupposes courts independent of the state, citizens’ rights, property rights and other autonomous institutions.' 

The dependence principle also means that Putin is implacably opposed to institutional development, which presupposes courts independent of the state, citizens’ rights, property rights and other autonomous institutions. While he is in power, none of this will be allowed to happen, because the existence of such independent institutions, which cannot be controlled by a telephone call, contradicts his worldview.

In this picture, man is a creature able to work for money, but unable to be loyal. So those who are ‘one of us’ are actually just dependent. They deserve no respect, because they are working for money. The fact that their money, often of very doubtful origin, comes from people ‘inside the tent’ keeps the recipients on side. Others get the other kind of money and are definitely outside the tent, even if their money is completely transparent and honest. 

Photo: Kremlin.ru

About the author

Maxim Trudolyubov is the Opinion Page Editor and columnist for Russia’s most influential, independent business daily Vedomosti (founded by Financial Times and Wall Street Journal). He is also Associate Director at the Center for New Media and Society at the New Economic School, Moscow.