It has recently come to light that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is going to run for the presidency of Russia next year. Last March, while visiting Russia, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden advised Putin not to run. After all, it is beginning to look as if Putin is a dictator. First, Putin is the President of Russia for two terms. Next, Putin becomes prime minister while an apparent stand-in (President Dmitri Medvedev) openly admits that his authority is less than that of Putin. Recently Putin announced his intention to serve another presidential term. We ought to ask if Putin is a dictator? Does he decide everything on his own? The answer to this question was recently given by a retired East European politician.
During a broadcast of Shuster Live, former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk publicly stated that the real rulers of Russia are “one step above” Prime Minister Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev. “The situation in Russia became such that not one or two people run the country,” Kravchuk explained, “Putin and Medvedev do not determine the future of Russia and the world. Another group determines the policy.”
The other television guests, along with the host (Mr. Shuster), listened attentively to Kravchuk’s explanation. Nobody jumped up to contradict him. He spoke carefully, in a calm voice, sometimes smiling as he spoke. Kravchuk’s manner had the authority of one who knows. The live audience applauded Kravchuk’s statement, which warned that the thinking of the Ukrainian government was mistaken. The Ukrainian government thinks it can build a relationship of friendship with Russia, he said, but there is no friendship. “Russia is ruled not by one or two individuals but by a group of people,” Kravchuk explained. “Russia has not yet identified the names, but this is a real fact.”
The former Ukrainian president noted that his country’s politics had been based upon an illusion for the entire period of Ukraine’s independence. “It doesn’t matter if we call Russia good or bad. It is what it is,” said Kravchuk. “Russia will not change her approach. And it is hardly a democratic approach. One group has been in charge for a long time, there is no real competition between political parties [in Russia], and there are no competing views within civil society. This is the way to totalitarianism.” Kravchuk said that “Russia exploits our weaknesses any way they like.” He added that “Russia will always be what it is….” It is therefore irrelevant whether Putin runs for another term of office, or whether Putin retires. According to Kravchuk, “If one of those heads [Putin or Medvedev] is taken from the Russian eagle – Russia will still follow the same policy.”
We might ask whether former President Kravchuk is a “conspiracy theorist.” No, he is one of the best-informed East European politicians alive. Kravchuk understood Moscow’s politics so well in times past that he advanced under that system. He became head of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and was the man who declared Ukraine’s independence, after all. He knows for a “fact” that Putin and Medvedev are part of a larger façade. Russia is still dangerous, he warned his Ukrainian listeners. The personal dictatorship of Putin is a deception. Do not believe what you see. There is not going to be positive change in Russia next year.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko was also a guest on the same program. When Kravchuk was finished, the host of the show, Mr. Shuster, asked the Ukrainian Foreign Minister whether another presidential term for Putin would make any difference. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Gryshchenko answered that “It doesn’t matter who runs the country [Russia]. We were told [under the Soviet Union] that ‘who is who’ doesn’t matter because Communism will win anyway. But now they understand that they were wrong. Personality matters, specifically when the personality has a mandate from the voters….” As for personalities “selected” by neighboring countries, explained Gryshchenko, “we will have to develop a relationship with such personalities.” Besides this, he added, the Russian people will vote for these personalities.
This cryptic exchange was extraordinary in what it revealed. Sensitive information was being discussed publicly, and discretion was in play. No history lesson was given, no detailed explanation was offered. Now that Putin is running for the presidency, Kravchuk wanted Ukraine to realize that Putin doesn’t matter. Russia’s policy is not going to change. Elections don’t matter in Russia because the real rulers of the country are not the elected rulers. A Politburo-like structure exists at the top, and all decisions are made by it. Ukraine should not put its hopes in Russian democracy. There are elections, of course, but the nominal personalities put forward are the servants of unnamed others.
In the West, policy-makers should heed Kravchuk’s warning about the Russian system. Moscow is not on a democratic path. Moscow is on a totalitarian path. And furthermore, Putin himself is a placeholder for others.