by Melania Parzonka
In December 1989, as the Berlin Wall was collapsing, a young KGB agent was frantically burning Stasi documents in Dresden, just 200 kilometres south of Berlin. His name was Vladimir Putin.
“We burned so much stuff that the furnace burst,” Putin recalls. That month, the Soviet Union started to crumble—but he stuck around, for good.
11 years later, on 1 January 2000, Putin entered the new century as the acting president of Russia, designated by Yeltsin as his successor. Joining a Soviet-style personality cult with tsarist-era religious nationalism, he has since grown to be one of the longest-ruling and most recognisable political figures of today.
Today, Putin is trying to rewrite the constitution to give him legal grounds for his presidency to continue for at least two more terms. With an entire generation that does not remember Russia without Putin, fewer and fewer people seem to know how he actually came into power and what it was that defined the Russian presidency as we know it today.
Despite all the mythology surrounding him, Vladimir Putin was not a self-made man but, rather, a product of his time—a man who was in the right place at the right moment. The foundation for his reign can be traced to the legal transition from the USSR to Russia that took place in the early 1990s. And for that, we have to go all the way back to Boris Yeltsin: the man who created Putin.
Boris Yeltsin, the first president of Russia
Yeltsin, the first president of the independent Russian state elected in 1991, was, in fact, an inherent part of the previous communist regime. He rose to power as Gorbachev’s protegee in the late 1980s and emerged as a leader of the wave of Russian anti-communist nationalism that picked up in the early 1990s.
In December 1991, without Gorbachev’s knowledge, Yeltsin proceeded to sign the Belovezha accords, declaring the end of the Soviet Union (the document itself has since been lost). It was a humble end for a 69-year strong nuclear empire— decided upon at an impromptu meeting in a forest between the Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian heads of state.
Yeltsin himself was a difficult, impetuous figure, who was tormented by depression and a heavy drinking problem. On numerous occasions, he appeared publicly intoxicated. Bill Clinton, with whom he enjoyed a close relationship, recalled a situation when Yeltsin was trying to drunkenly hail a taxi in front of the White House, only in his underwear, demanding to be taken to a pizza restaurant.
The president and the constitution - law and disorder
Following his election to the presidential office in July 1991, Yeltsin sought to expand the powers of the position to resemble the unlimited reach of the Soviet presidency. What stood in the way, however, was Russian legislation—and this is how Yeltsin found himself in a standoff with the Congress of People’s Deputies, the governmental body named in the amendment to the 1978 Russian constitution as the highest organ of state power.
In September 1993, Yeltsin signed an unconstitutional decree dissolving Congress and announcing a December election of the Federal Assembly of Russia to replace the congress as the legislative body. Soon after, he proceeded to ban opposition newspapers, alongside multiple political organisations of the opposition. It was a radical alteration of the legal framework in which he operated—by doing so, he cut ties with the previous regime and drew a thick line between Gorbachev’s vision of an independent Russia and his own.
In response, the Congress of People’s Deputies impeached him, and the standoff escalated as Yeltsin proceeded to send the military to shell the parliament.
The constitutional coup, apart from consolidating Yeltsin’s power, made it clear that Russia had failed to establish a liberal democracy. By December 1993, Yeltsin passed a new constitution in a rigged referendum, awarding himself the power to dismiss Parliament and choose prime ministers as he pleased. The police, the army, and the KGB now had to report to the president rather than the prime minister. The constitution also granted him permanent power to issue decrees with the force of law—a power that the now-disbanded Congress tried to take back from him in the midst of the constitutional crisis earlier in 1993.
Reforms and privatisation - how oligarchs became an inherent part of Russian politics
Apart from failing to establish a democracy—although, it might never have been intended—Yeltsin proved incapable of managing the promised transformation of Russia to a capitalist economy. In January 1992, the departure from the state regulated economy began, triggering hyperinflation that swept away lifelong savings, with prices of everyday commodities skyrocketing by 350% within the first month of the reform. By 1993, the country was in a deep depression, and the ruble’s worth plummeted. Living standards deteriorated so radically that between 1992 and 1994, male life expectancy in Russia dropped from 62 to 57 years, a decrease that has been attributed to socio-economic stress and resulting alcohol abuse and suicide.
The market reform was followed by two stages of privatisation. The first involved aiming to distribute shares in national companies amongst the general population through ownership vouchers, with little success. The second wave of privatisation in 1995 ended up being an aggressive sellout of stakes in the most profitable Russian companies to Yeltsin’s circle of loyalists. In a series of auctions known as the ”loans for shares scheme,” key parts of Russian industry were sold for much less than they were worth in exchange for loans to the government.
1996 presidential election
Yeltsin’s victory in the 1996 presidential election further consolidated the undemocratic shape of Russian reforms. As a result of the economic crisis, Yeltsin was hugely unpopular— at the beginning of his campaign in January 1996, his approval rating stood at only 6%. It seemed like he could lose the election to a hardline communist and one of the critics of Gorbachev’s reforms—Gennady Zyuganov. Support for Yeltsin was so low, some did not even believe a fair election would even take place—in fact, Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president from 2008-2012, hinted that this could have been the case, reportedly saying that “there is hardly any doubt who won [that race]. It was not Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin.”
His campaign was largely funded through the so-called Davos pact, an agreement made during the 1996 World Economic Forum between Anatoly Chubais, who was leading the financial reforms in Russia, and a group of oligarchs. They agreed to provide financial support to Yeltsin and exercise their control over newly privatised media to lead an anti-communist campaign aimed at Zyuganov. The “loan for shares” scheme worked as bait—the loans were already taken before the election, but the auction of the industries was scheduled for post-election; if the oligarchs wanted the favourable deal to come through, Yeltsin had to win the election.
As much as the oligarchs’ support for Yeltsin is understandable, there was another unexpected figure behind Yeltsin’s victory—Bill Clinton. The two presidents enjoyed a strange but very close relationship rooted in post-Cold War optimism that the two countries could end their hostilities for good—after all, this was the time when Russian NATO membership was thought possible. Clinton, wary of the fact that a thin line of trust had been established between the two ex-rival countries, stepped in to provide funding for Yeltsin’s campaign. He convinced the International Monetary Fund to give Russia a 10 billion dollar loan and assigned Yeltsin three American reelection consultants, who planned his campaign. Clinton later conveniently shifted the blame for the failed reforms in Russia from Yeltsin to the IMF.
Rise of Putin
After having withdrawn from active political life in 1998, Yeltsin went through multiple prime minister appointments to finally settle on the virtually unknown Vladimir Putin in August 1999. Putin had earlier proved his loyalty by working his way up in Yeltsin’s administration since 1996, when he joined as a deputy head of the Presidential Property Management Department on the recommendation of his former colleague, Alexei Kudrin. They met while working for Saint Petersburg mayor and Putin’s political mentor, Anatoly Sobchak—this was Putin’s first lesson about the importance of personal connections.
At the time of his appointment as prime minister, Yeltsin already had a plan for Putin to become president. He didn’t shy away from sharing that information with Bill Clinton in their phone conversation in September 1999, calling Putin a “solid” and “very sociable” man that he hoped Clinton would find to be a “highly qualified partner.” Designating a successor would protect Yeltsin from being held accountable for his inept presidency, unlawful sellout of key industries, and money laundering. Hours after becoming an acting president, Putin issued one of his first decrees, granting Yeltsin immunity from criminal or administrative prosecution and protection from search and seizure of his belongings by the authorities.
From his first days as president, Putin moved quickly to fully subordinate all of the main TV networks to the Kremlin, putting the nail in the coffin of the chaotic and selective semi-pluralism of Yeltsin-era media. The beginning of his presidential term coincided with the oil boom of the early 2000s that pulled Russia out of a deep economic crisis and gave Putin the legitimacy Yeltsin lacked towards the end of his time in office. By 2002, the price of crude oil doubled compared to 1998, reaching an astonishing price of $138 per barrel in 2008, when Putin’s second term was coming to an end. The Russian economy bounced back and, consequently, the quality of everyday life did so as well. Real income steadily grew, and unemployment and poverty levels decreased.
All of that was reflected in support for Putin—coming out of nowhere, he immediately gained widespread adoration. In 2004, a song called “Такого как Путин” (which translates to “The One Like Putin”), in which two young Russian girls list the features that Putin shares with their dream man, topped Russian pop music charts, becoming a hit of Putin’s rallies. Throughout years of his presidency, Putin was ranked amongst the most popular political leaders in the world, hitting around an 80% approval rating mark for the majority of his presidency, according to the Levada Center, an independent Russian NGO.
As my Russian friend put it, unlike in Western democracies where charisma and legitimacy earn you the office, in Russia, you become president, and charisma and legitimacy follow.
For Putin to gain popularity, it was enough not to be Yeltsin.
The new constitution
In January 2020, Putin went back and forth between attempts to diminish or increase his presidential powers, clearly preparing for either safe retirement or a prolonged stay in power. He eventually settled for proposing amendments to the Constitution that would both give more powers to the parliament and erase his previous terms guaranteeing him, for now, two more terms in the office.
These would not be the first substantial Russian constitutional changes that concern the presidential office. As the Constitution barred him from running for a third consecutive term, in 2008, Vladimir Putin was forced to step down following the end of his second term in office. Between 2008 and 2012, he was replaced in the presidential office by Dmitry Medvedev, who appointed Putin as prime minister for the period of his presidency. Shortly after being elected, Medvedev passed a constitutional amendment that extended the presidential term from four to five years. Since the law is not retroactive, it was a move that was aimed at whoever would be elected following him—clearly, Putin.
In an attempt to legitimise the new amendments, Putin announced a nationwide constitutional referendum—the first one to take place in Russia since 1993. Just like Yeltsin was back then, Putin is trying to secure his future and creating tools that will allow him to do so. Initially scheduled for the 22nd of April, the referendum has been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. It would be wrong to say Putin’s decision to yet again artificially prolong his presidency is surprising—after all, autocrats rarely leave the office anything but dead.