Putin's Inner Stalin

It was one of those simple, glad-handing moments that national leaders find their days filled with; last Friday Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin climbed into a prototype for Russia's first domestically-designed and built hybrid car along with billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who financed the construction of the “Yo-mobile,” for a drive from Putin's dacha (vacation home) to President Dmitry Medvedev's nearby compound. It was the kind of event that called for big smiles for the press cameras along with some platitudes about the innovative future of the Russian automobile industry, which is still intimately associated with the doughty, Soviet-era offerings from Lada. But Putin couldn't help being Putin. Rather than praising Prokhorov for underwriting the hybrid project, Putin pointedly said – in front of the cameras – “I would like to drive your Yo-mobile to Dmitry Anatolievich [Medvedev], and show it to him ... I hope your Yo-mobile will not fall apart on the way.” I'm not sure if the prototype Yo-mobile has a backseat, but that's where Putin figuratively put Prokhorov.

Of course Prokhorov got of lightly compared to his fellow oligarch Oleg Deripaska who was also publicly dressed down by Putin. In 2009, Deripaska decided to shutter one of the manufacturing plants in his vast business portfolio. Unfortunately for the factory town of Pikalyovo outside of St. Petersburg, not only did Deripaska's plant provide essentially the only source of employment for the town, but the factory's boilers also supplied the town with hot water, so not only would  Pikalyovo's residents be without jobs for the Russian winter, they also would have to go without hot water. What set the plight of Pikalyovo apart from the fate of other dying factory towns across Russia was that the story was covered by the national media and thus also received the attention of Putin himself. Putin summoned Deripaska to Pikalyovo where, in front of television cameras, he thrust a paper authorizing the reopening of the plant and a pen across the table to Deripaska, along with the order to “sign it.” Deripaska dutifully did as told; Putin then demanded that he return the pen. While this incident had the added benefit of making Putin seem like a “man of the people,” both this interaction with Deripaska, last Friday's comment to Prokhorov and a host of other incidents fit into a pattern with Putin. It is not simply enough for him to have the trappings of power and the title (President or Prime Minister, take your pick), Putin also needs to stress the fact that he's the alpha-male in the room; he's the muzhik (real man) and his underlings best not forget it. It harkens back to the leadership style of another leader from Russian history, Josef Stalin, who never passed up an opportunity to humiliate his subordinates.

Perhaps no one has felt Putin's need to practice a kind of scorched earth management style more than another one-time oligarch, the former head of the oil conglomerate Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is now languishing in prison in Russia's Far East. Khodorkovsky's official crimes include tax evasion and misappropriating state resources; his attorneys, while advocating for his innocence by claiming he did the best job he could to abide by Russia's ever-changing tax and property laws during the chaotic era of privatization in the 1990s, add that if Khodorkovsky can be charged with crimes so then can all of the other members of Russia's oligarch class. Yet, they note, only Khodorkovsky faced prosecution. Popular rumor explains Khodorkovsky's real crime as being the violation of a “gentleman’s agreement” between Putin and the Oligarchs: if they stayed out of politics, Putin would give them a free hand in running their empires. But Khodorkovsky, in an attempt to foster an ideal of social responsibility (a novelty among the oligarch class), made a few minor donations to political movements in Siberia, a small act that was enough for Putin to make an example of him to the rest of Russia's business elite to not even think about defying the Boss.

It is tempting to argue, that despite his heinous crimes, Stalin was the leader Russia needed to drag it from a largely 19th century existence into the Modern Age, to stand up to the onslaught of Fascist Germany and to establish itself as a superpower in the post-war period. Stalin was power politics, the pseudonym Stalin in fact means “steel” in Russian, a none-too-subtle statement on the part of the former Ioseb Jughashvili. Putin has faintly echoed this thought with his own statements that Russia is such a large land that it needs a “strong hand” (preferably his) to lead it. But 2011 is surely not 1941, and this year has not been kind to authoritarian strongmen: Mubarak is out in Egypt, so is Ben Ali in Tunisia, Gadhafi seems like he is losing his grip on power in Libya, while other leaders across the Arab world are making moves to appease their restive populations. Even Italy's formerly Teflon leader (and Putin pal) Silvio Berlusconi's future seems dim, while other strongmen like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez look more like anachronisms than dynamic leaders. So while Putin's tough guy act may play well to a slice of Russia's domestic audience, he's looking increasingly out of step on the world stage. 

By that score, his ruling tandem partner, the calm, bureaucratic Dmitry Medvedev seems to better fit the profile for a 21st century Head of State. While Putin is dressing down oligarchs, Medvedev is seeking funding for his pet project: Skolkovo, a Russian center for technological innovation modeled after California's Silicon Valley; a high-profile attempt to move Russia's economic base away from extraction industries (oil, natural gas and minerals), towards creating value-added, high-tech products. But that future is built upon foreign investment in Russia's business sector, and foreign investors remain wary of dedicating capital to Russia, citing recent hassles given to companies like Ikea and BP. A second prosecution of  Khodorkovsky late last year, perhaps designed to keep him in prison through the 2012 presidential election cycle, does nothing to calm investors' fears that Russia is a land of laws that can be bent to shape the political will of the day.

Medvedev has made tackling corruption and promoting an independent judiciary two of the main planks of his presidential platform, but so far has seen little progress towards those goals, in part because of resistance from the Putin faction within the Kremlin. Still, Medvedev remains popular among foreign leaders and Russia's liberal elite for at least seeming like he wants to move Russia along the path of reform. He is also seen as pragmatic on the global stage, Russia's abstention on the United Nations Security Council vote authorizing the no-fly zone in Libya is cited as one example of this pragmatism. 

“Pragmatic” and “reformer” are not the first words that come to mind when one thinks of Putin's bare-knuckle management style. While Putin may be cast in the “strong leader” mold forged by Josef Stalin, the multipolar world of today calls for nuance rather than the projection of raw power. By that measure, Putin is starting to seem increasingly out of place as Russia tries to develop in the 21st century.

Development, Dmitry Medvedev, Post-Soviet, Russia, Vladimir Putin