About the book of Angus Roxburgh
(Publ. I. B. Tauris)
Luc MICHEL for EODE Think Tank-2013 03 29 /
“the "empowered Russia" thesis of Roxburgh”
“the book profiles Vladimir Putin, Russia’s most popular politician, whose era began on the final day of the 20th century, at noon. Roxburgh explores the phenomenon of Putin’s popularity, the changes in his outlook, and his achievements and failures since his advent into politics, both domestically and on the international scene. The author seeks to share his knowledge and understanding of Russia with Western readers, providing an insight into many of its momentous steps”
Interesting book to discover the geopolitical, ideological and political basis of the “Putin System” and the reborn of Russia as a great eurasiatic power, THE STRONGMAN open large views and debates on the reality and the ideology of the new Russian State of Putin.
A complete insider view of the roats of Putin power, with subject such as the pro Putin Youth democratic antifascist movement NASHI (ours), “nationalistic in tone and arguably attempts to foster a personality cult around the great leader”, or the influence of Churkov, the main ideologist of the Kremlin.
AN INSIDER BOOK
Roxburgh is a former Moscow correspondent for the Sunday Times and the BBC, but he went to work for the Kremlin as a PR advisor in 2006.
This book “is a profile rather than a biography; it analyzes some landmark events that have happened in Russia since Putin came into power, and how the Russian leader has responded to those events. It draws from the author’s years-long working experience in the Soviet Union and in post-Soviet Russia, as well as from numerous exclusive interviews with Russian and foreign government officials and politicians who were participants and eyewitnesses to the events covered.”
In The Strongman journalist Angus Roxburgh (BBC, Sunday Times) “expands on his experiences working in Russia in three separate capacities. First as a foreign correspondent in Yeltsin’s Russia, then as a private adviser to President Putin’s press team, and latterly as chief consultant to the BBC TV documentary ‘Putin, Russia & the West’. Roxburgh’s book accordingly is a vivid account by a ‘Western’ journalist with excellent senior access of the tumultuous transition of Russia away from Soviet communism to today’s sui generis Russia: a grumpy, defiant, nationalistic ‘managed democracy’ propped up by a feisty economy”. The book looks at the man at the core of this transformation: Vladimir Putin.
Cast in a linear narrative, the book starts with a summary of the confusing early years of post-communist rule before getting into its stride as it describes the KGB origins and rise to power of Putin, then the evolution of his internal and external policies. We get detailed insider accounts of the way Yeltsin chose Putin to succeed him, and the early promising exchanges between Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair. The important Putin economic reforms – not least the bold ‘flat tax’ initiative – are covered well.
Roxburgh “offers many vivid, credible anecdotes about Putin and his merciless dealings with top Russians and Western leaders, including how he once produced a dog to sniff at Angela Merkel’s legs as he knew that Merkel was afraid of dogs. Plus, we have it confirmed for the first time from a senior British source that the infamous MI6 hollow rock which the Russians said had been used to communicate with a Russian agent in Moscow was, indeed, genuine.”
“Every chapter of this book is worth reading, wrotte a critic, benefiting from interviews with a wide range of individuals, insider titbits, and the author's knowledge and empathy. But his early chapter on the intricacies of economic reform and the later chapter on the Georgia war are particularly clear and well-judged. The Strongman is a tie-in with a television series, Brook Lapping's Putin's Russia and the West, for which Roxburgh was chief consultant. The many interviews the team conducted inform the book and give it a liveliness and authenticity.”
Along with biographical facts, “Roxburgh provides testimonies by statesmen who have had tete-a-tete conversations with Putin. Many of them say they were mesmerized by his communication skills.”
“He is a brilliant communicator… A virtuoso… Able to reflect like a mirror the person he is with, to make him believe he is just like them. He does this so cleverly that his counterpart apparently doesn't notice it but just feels great.” U.S. President George W. Bush is among those who have fallen under Putin’s “professional” spell. After their first meeting, Bush said he had looked Putin in the eye and “was able to get a sense of his soul” – a phrase that must have raised quite a few eyebrows in the White House.”
THE “DRAMATIC FIGHT FOR RUSSIA’S FUTURE UNDER VLADIMIR PUTIN
Thus, a book long away from the usual Western speach against Putin and the new Russian State. By exemple this sort of comment of a critic of the book in the US press: “ Russia under Vladimir Putin has proved a prickly partner for the West, a far cry from the democratic ally many hoped for when the Soviet Union collapsed. Abroad, Putin has used Russia’s energy strength as a foreign policy weapon, while at home he has cracked down on opponents, adamant that only he has the right vision for his country’s future.”
Former BBC Moscow correspondent Angus Roxburgh charts the “dramatic fight for Russia’s future under Vladimir Putin — how the former KGB man changed from reformer to autocrat; how he sought the West’s respect but earned its fear; how he cracked down on his rivals at home and burnished a flamboyant personality cult, one day saving snow leopards or horseback riding bare-chested, the next tongue-lashing Western audiences”.
Drawing on dozens of exclusive interviews in Russia, where he worked as a Kremlin insider advising Putin on press relations, Roxburgh also argues that “the West threw away chances to bring Russia in from the cold by failing to understand its fears and aspirations following the collapse of communism”.
The 2012 demonstrations against the Putin regime – supported by the Western powers – are too recent to have made it into Angus Roxburgh's book, but they reflect the paradox that is in the core of it: “Is Vladimir Putin a popular hero that reversed Russia's decline under that pro-Western weakling, Boris Yeltzin, or is he a dictator undermining Russia's re engagement with the global markets?”
Putin's foreign policy has certainly shifted from the pro-Western inactivity practiced by Gorbachov and Yeltzin. Gorbachov disliked the first Gulf War, but failed to oppose it, and Yeltsin has shown shown merely passive, symbolic protest against NATO's bombing campaign in Serbia.
RUSSIA VERSUS USA
Putin's Russia did not respond to America's adventures in Iraq, but it did react to developments in two former sattelites moving politically and economically Westward. The Georgian Rose revolution in 2003 and the Ukranian Orange revolution of 2004-2005 brought to power in these countries pro-Western leaders, Mikkhail Saakashvilli in the former and Viktor Yushchenko in the Ukraine. Russia used its power as a supplier of natural gas to dictate terms to the Ukrainians, and the Russio-Georgian War undermined the Saakashvilli regime , ending as it had with the total independance of the self proclamed Republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia born in the nineties. For better or worse, Russia has re established its "zone of influence" in near terrirtories. Hardened Russian rhetoric also arguably plays a role in making Russia appear, at least, a global power.
Angus Roxburgh blames much of the new anxiety in the Russia-Western relationship on heavy handed policies by the Clinton and Bush administrations. The Bush administration, while schizophrenic and bombastic, has hardly challanged any of Russia's vital interests.
Still, “Putin's aggressive policies do not waver”. Putin's Russia has positively encouraged Syrian President Bashar Assad in his resistance against agression.
Roxburgh argues that “the west and Russia are equally to blame for the misunderstandings and wasted opportunities of the last decade”. The "new cold war", he says, “isn't just the result of Putin's strident behaviour and his "legitimate" pursuit of Russian interests. It's also down to American insensitivity". Roxburgh was in Munich in 2007 when Putin made his most blistering attack on US power.
The autor describe what he calls “Putin's post-imperial complexes”. “His list of geopolitical grudges is long: Nato expansion, the US's Europe-based missile defence programme, the lack of reciprocity following Putin's support for George Bush's war on terrorism”. According to Dmitry Medvedev, Russia has "privileged interests" in its backyard.
RUSSIA STRIKE BACK
Slowly but surely the mood of the Russian elites changes, in response to internal and external events. Roxburgh “looks closely at the impact on Putin and the Moscow elite of the startling war in Chechnya (started under President Yeltsin)”, the successive mass terrorist episodes. Beyond Russia’s borders there come 9/11, the US attack on Afghanistan and then Iraq, NATO enlargement, the upheavals in Georgia then Ukraine, Kosovo’s independence bid, complex negotiations with Washington over Missile Defence and so on.
Roxburgh “describes how all these episodes and more led Putin to conclude that Russia had become ‘soft’ and was allowing itself to be pushed around. His answer has been to take Russia back from something resembling modern European democracy towards a much more ‘vertically controlled’ society in which far fewer senior officials are directly elected”.
This include too “State-sponsored nostalgia for Stalin and a Kremlin-encouraged youth group Nashi”.
Angus Roxburgh tells how “Putin was confronted with challenges on all sides: by the expansion of NATO into Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic; by NATO strikes against Serbia; by a growing Islamist secessionist threat in Chechnya and Dagestan; by the withholding of taxes by major companies and regional governments. Putin’s position as President was undermined by business interest groups who bribed deputies to defeat his tax proposals.”
THE DESTRUCTION OF THE POWER OF THE OLIGARCHS: RESTORING THE RUSSIAN STATE
The destruction of the power of the oligarchs was Putin central action in his beginning to restore Russian State. “The methods he used against Khodorkovsky, Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky and others found no understanding in the West”, Roxburgh says. Examining the Yukos case, he cites Russian minister German Gref, who recalled that “not a single bill could get through the State Duma without the oligarchs’ approval in those days”.
The oligarchs, “particularly Khodorkovsky, believed that the private sector could utilise Russia’s massive energy resources, from which they profited, better than the state. Putin and his government believed otherwise. Consequently, Putin adopted a more confrontational policy against oligarchs who opposed him – ‘if it’s business you have chosen, stick to business’. His statist policies had implications for foreign investment in the energy industry and he sought to change the terms of investment with the large foreign investors who had benefited disproportionately by contracts made under the Yeltsin regime.”
PUTIN STATE CONTROLLED ECONOMY
Roxburgh’s book raises the question of ‘what type of economical system’ has been built in Russia. “This is an economic system legitimating private property and the market with significant state control. But it is not the same as ‘State Socialism’.
The state “has two major forms of control”:
* first, “considerable ownership of property which gives the government significant revenue independent of taxes. Some economic surplus (profit) accrues directly to the state, in the case of Russia through state companies, such as Gazprom”.
* Secondly, “power is secured through administrative control. The government is sufficiently powerful to direct privately owned national companies to fulfil state objectives. This could give problems to private companies and their shareholders when the state intervenes to direct their resources to politically inspired (though legitimate) goals.”
Roxburgh illustrates a major political difference from Western market societies when he describes Putin’s handling of the closure of a factory in Pikalyovo which laid off thousands of workers who subsequently could not pay bills to their local utility companies, leaving the population with no hot water and heating. Putin ordered the owners to immediately pay arrears of salaries amounting to 41 million rubles, ‘You made thousands of people hostages to your ambition, incompetence and greed. It’s absolutely unacceptable!’ The Russian state “can enforce what is euphemistically called in the West the ‘social responsibility of business’.”
Putin, however, is no Socialist. At the beginning of his Presidency he legalised the purchase of land. During the period of economic crisis, he could have extended the renationalisation of enterprises and further reduced the power of the oligarchs. But he preferred to keep within a private property market system, and he successfully applied for membership of the World Trade Organisation in December 2011 – exposing Russia to external constraints of the world economic system.
But Putin, “at least to some degree, reversed the relationship under Capitalism between business and the state”. “Under Western and Russian Capitalism, there are two frameworks of power – the political and the economic. In the West, business has captured the state; in Russia, under a commanding President, it can be the other way around.”. It’s exactly what must do a State controlled economy.
“But it is clear that Russia has not created a vibrant form of modern Capitalism and the state therefore comes to perform a developmental role”. “Unlike Angus Roxburgh, many people in Russia look not to the USA as a model to be copied, but back at the (qualified) success of State Socialism”, writtes a US critic of the book.
PUTIN'S SELF-CONCEIVED HISTORICAL MISSION: TO RESTORE RUSSIAN GREATNESS
“In public perception, the Yeltsin era is a “decade of shame and humiliation.” It was the criminal world that set the tune in Russia in those days, and contract killings were rife; downtown Moscow was transformed into a huge flea market; economic reforms of the early 1990s left a lot of Russians destitute; society was traumatized by the loss of the 250-million nation, by the Chechen war and the hostage-taking terrorist attack on a hospital in Budyonnovsk; the Russians also found it humiliating that their country had to follow fiscal policy recommendations from international donor institutions.”
Putin changed all that and achieve "Stability" for Russia, as Roxburgh claims. And it is true that Russia has enjoyed high economic growth. Russia has responded effectively to the 2008 Great Recession with a strong Keynesian stimulous.
About Foreign policy, Putin restore Russia's status as a leading world power. The Motherland now posses again its long lost dignity. Chechnya is domiciled, “but at heavy cost, with repeated terrorist attacks launched by Chechan terrorists against Russian civilians”.
In international relations, Putin, “while trying to placate the West, correctly saw the USA as a hegemonic threat not only to Russia but also to world peace in general.”
So Putin “became a target of anger from the leaders of the West” and the Western medias. “The British media have depicted him as a trilbyed gunman; a master puppeteer controlling the strings not only in Russia but of the supply of energy to the West.” The Observer newspaper posed the question: ‘Is he the westward leaning ally of President Bush and Tony Blair, or someone whose real affection is for the bad old days of the Soviet Union?’ [Observer, 2 November 2003].
Putin reversed Yeltsin’s pro-Western policy and “sought to give Russia the respect it deserved abroad as well as to instil a feeling of confidence domestically. Internally, he curbed the worst consequences of privatisation by transfers of Russia’s material wealth to the population aided of course by the exponential rise in world energy prices.” Putin’s popularity rose at home, though he was criticised abroad. He renationalised many of the energy companies: in 2003 state-owned companies accounted for only 12 per cent of oil production, a figure which rose to nearly 40 per cent by 2007, whilst in the gas sector state companies controlled 85 per cent of production.
Putin's self-conceived historical mission is an explicitly nationalist one: to restore Russian greatness.
The “phenomenon of Putin’s popularity with a majority of Russians can be attributed to the fact” that he “restored Russian self-respect and laid down the ground for future prosperity,” Roxburgh says.
(Cotations from Roxburgh’s book and the press file of the reviews of the book)
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: I. B. Tauris (February 28, 2012)
On the same topic, read :
Luc MICHEL / FROM GADDAFI TO PUTIN: THE LIBERALS AGAINST THE RUSSIAN STATE!
* EODE / Eurasian Observatory for Democracy & Election (Brussels-Paris-Moscow-Kichinev)
* EODE Think Tank