Angus Roxburgh home


One evening in December 1991 the Tass newswire clattered out a short report on the telex machine in the BBC's Moscow bureau. Only a few days into my job as correspondent there, I tore off the page and peered at it, wondering what to make of it. The report said the Russian leader, Boris Yeltsin, and his counterparts from Ukraine and Belarus, meeting in some forest near Poland, had declared that "the USSR has ceased to exist as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality". I called the Nine O'Clock News and suggested it looked pretty important. "Oh," came the reply, "they're always saying things like that, aren't they?"

Being in my early days as a BBC correspondent and not entirely sure myself what was going on, I didn't insist. Thus it was that the moment the Soviet Union died went unreported on the BBC, at least until the next morning.

A couple of weeks later a graphic image brought it all home: anyone watching television over their Christmas dinner saw the shimmering red flag of the world's first communist state lowered on the Kremlin flagpole and replaced by the rather nondescript tricolour of Russia. The USSR existed no more. Its president, Mikhail Gorbachev, no longer had a country to rule. Yeltsin was the leader of a new, independent, post-communist Russia.

The end of communism was greeted with some trepidation in Russia and with euphoria in the West. The Soviet-bloc countries of eastern and central Europe had abandoned communism two years earlier and were quickly adapting to democracy and capitalism, restoring their place in the "European family". It was widely assumed that although it would be a more complicated process, Russia would now do the same. There would be democracy, a free market flowering over 11 time zones and a new partnership with the West.

Twenty years on, Russia is less democratic than it was in Gorbachev's last days and more isolated from the West. How on earth did things go so badly wrong?

The blame lies above all with two Russian presidents: Yeltsin, who was weak, drunk and in thrall to the West, and Vladimir Putin, his opposite in every sense — a "strongman", a narcissist, a former KGB agent with a limited understanding of democracy and an exaggerated fear of western encirclement and humiliation. However, the blame also lies with western leaders who at every stage managed to alienate the nation they hoped to win over and failed hopelessly to understand Russia's sensitivities as it struggled to adapt to a new world. Many in the West continue to regard the Yeltsin years as a high point. Journalists like myself probably contributed to this impression because it was easy to confuse the genuine joys of untrammelled freedom and the flooding of shops with food and consumer goods with something "western". But there was a darker side to the Yeltsin years, too.

Above all, there was the cataclysmic assault on Chechnya, at the end of 1994, to crush a tiny nation's legitimate and popular quest for independence. The war left many tens of thousands dead and entailed such a catalogue of war crimes and human rights abuses that Yeltsin's credentials as a democrat should have been shredded. Yet no war crimes tribunal was ever set up. It was as if the world could cope with only one butcher of minorities — Slobodan Milosevic — at a time. Yeltsin's economic policies were equally catastrophic. The sudden liberalisation of prices in 1992 sent millions below the poverty line, relying on shipments of humanitarian aid from the West, while the privatisation of state industries created a tiny class of billionaire "oligarchs" who snapped up the nation's resources for a song — or, rather, for singing Yeltsin's praises through their private television channels. Yeltsin would never have been re-elected in 1996 had it not been for the oligarchs' outrageous use of the media to support him, something they were happy to do since he had just turned them into billionaires. Yet in the West we continued to see him as a democrat.

It was my feeling, reporting from Russia throughout the Yeltsin period, that many Russians felt patronised and insulted by the western assumption that they were "sub-Americans" who could be lifted out of their semi-Asiatic ways and "civilised". Toby Gati, President Bill Clinton's adviser who prepared the first aid package to Russia, admits: "Perhaps we in the US had a very narrow view of Soviet society and we overestimated the Russians' desire to live by our rules. We started with the assumption that the transformation would be quick and the chaos — which, incidentally, was not seen as chaos but as a transitional period — would soon be replaced by normal life."

I remember covering one of the "pioneering" privatisation auctions in the city of Nizhny Novgorod.In many ways it was inspiring. Go-ahead Russians, keen to set up their own private businesses, were bidding for 195 state-owned trucks and vans, many of them in a dreadful condition. The problem for me, and I suspect for many Russians, was the sight of so many American consultants swarming around in sharp suits supervising the process. To all intents and purposes it looked as if America was selling off Russia.

The West clung to its view about Russia's "progress" under Yeltsin right to the end of his presidency. Clinton had talks with the newly installed President Putin in Moscow in 2000 and paid a farewell visit to Yeltsin. "I think we're going to miss ol' Boris," he said to his aide as they walked away. It was clear he felt that under Yeltsin things had gone well and Russia was where America wanted it to be. In fact, things were not going well and Russia did not want just to go wherever America wanted it to be.
Nothing illustrated Russia's loss of self-esteem more than Nato's bombing of Serbia in 1999 despite the Kremlin's objections. It is significant that Putin has invoked that moment countless times as a symbol of Russian humiliation. It helps to explain why the former KGB man came to office determined to make Russia's voice heard again.

He came to power on a wave of popularity — and it wasn't just Russians who welcomed him. Tony Blair rushed to see him; the new American president, George W Bush, looked into his eyes and "saw his soul". The fact is — hard to remember in these days of a new cold war and rigged elections — that Putin came to power determined not just to restore Russia's pride but also to reintegrate it into Europe. He hammered this message home at every international meeting.

At an early meeting with George Robertson, Nato's secretary-general, Putin opened with a remarkable question: "When are you going to invite Russia to join Nato?"

Robertson was taken aback and patiently explained: "Well, Mr President, we don't invite people to join Nato. You apply for membership. You then have to go through a process to show that you can be integrated within Nato and then an invitation to membership is issued." That put the upstart Russian firmly in his place. But it did not put an end to his overtures.
After the 9/11 attacks on America, Putin overruled hardliners in his entourage who opposed co-operating with the Americans and offered unprecedented assistance in the war in Afghanistan. He also introduced economic reforms that the West applauded: a low, flat-rate tax to stimulate the economy and a law permitting the sale and purchase of land for the first time since the 1917 revolution. These were pushed through despite colossal resistance from communists and hardliners.

This was accompanied by the first signs of Putin's autocratic, anti-democratic tendencies. He closed down or took over critical television stations, put one oligarch who dared to challenge him — Mikhail Khodorkovsky — in jail and chased others into exile. Now a spiral of mistrust was unleashed, with the West moving to protect itself against an apparently recidivist Russia and Putin becoming more prickly about what he regarded as western threats.

In my book, The Strongman, I have tried to identify Putin's "fatal flaw" and believe it may be this: a total inability to make any connection between his undemocratic behaviour at home and western wariness about what this might say about his intentions abroad. American policy under President Bush was driven mainly by neoconservatives who insisted the West's main policy goal must be to cement the gains of the 1989 revolutions, which had seen the Soviet bloc crumble and European nations brought back into the democratic fold. Many of the nations in question, particularly Poland and the Baltic states, have good reason to fear Russia, the more so when they see Putin cracking down on democracy and human rights. Yet Putin has proved unable to make this connection and regards the West's efforts to defend itself as a threat and an insult. Here we are offering to rejoin the European mainstream, his argument goes, and you are treating us like an enemy.

Four events reinforced Putin's view that the West, ignoring his "gestures", was intent on isolating Russia or even destroying it. I see this as Putin's second fatal flaw:  paranoia.

First, all the other former members of the Warsaw Pact joined Nato, expanding the alliance right up to Russia's borders. "Why are you doing this?" the Russians asked. "We're supposed to be on the same side now." Even Gorbachev insists he was promised that this would not happen.
Second, President Bush forged ahead with his plans for a missile shield which the Russians believe reduces the effectiveness of their nuclear deterrent.

Third and fourth, the West supported the democratic revolutions in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. Interviews carried out for a BBC documentary, Putin, Russia and the West, to be aired in the new year, reveal an astonishing level of paranoia in the Kremlin regarding the West's motives.

One of Putin's advisers, Sergei Markov, who was dispatched by the Kremlin to Ukraine to try to prevent the orange revolution from unfolding, spoke in outlandish, apocalyptic terms about the West's alleged goals. The westward-leaning Viktor Yushchenko, he said, was a pawn in the hands of American-based Ukrainian nationalists and Nazis who "were determined that Ukrainians and Russians should start killing each other — and I mean killing each other". Another adviser, Gleb Pavlovsky, says there was, and is, a "destroy Russia" project which began in Chechnya and continued with the election of pro-western presidents in Georgia and Ukraine. I have little doubt that Putin shares both of these views.
It is clear Putin regards the recent wave of protests in Russia, caused by evidence of blatant election fraud, as part of a pattern. After the revolution in Ukraine, he responded by cracking down on foreign-funded non-governmental organisations in Russia and by presiding over the establishment of the youth group Nashi, with the express purpose of combating anti-Kremlin protests. Recently he blamed Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, for inciting the demonstrations and threatened to take more action against "western interference" in Russia's democratic process.

The suggestion that the protests were instigated by the US State Department is nonsense. But it is true the West has an uncanny gift for preaching to the Russians and trying to make them "more like us". What the West thinks is good for Russia is not necessarily what most Russians think is good for Russia. Proud nation that it is, many Russians simply object to being lectured about what is good for them.

Putin understands this well and halfway through his time in office abandoned his efforts to woo the West, tapping instead into that vein of resentment and Russian pride that runs so deep in the country.
Having observed Russia's agonising history at close quarters for almost 40 years, I don't believe the country is inherently unsuited to democracy. The Gorbachev revolution was brought about largely by a western-oriented intelligentsia, but it was Yeltsin who finished it off, riding a massive wave of popular revulsion against the privileges and remoteness of the communist ruling class. For a few years Russians knew exactly what democracy meant and revelled in it.

Those same Russians then turned against Yeltsin and supported Putin precisely because he promised to bring back "order". Putin has cleverly tarnished the very concept of "democracy" by associating it in people's minds with the chaos and humiliation of the Yeltsin years.

Now, it seems, democratic instincts are again sprouting through the cracked earth, once more provoked by revulsion at corruption and unfairness. State television may be controlled by the Kremlin, but more and more Russians are aware that Putin has turned their country into a kleptocracy, ruled and pillaged by his cronies from the KGB or from
his native St Petersburg. Having stolen the country's resources, they then committed a theft which appears to have upset even the most passive of Russians: they stole people's votes at this month's parliamentary elections. Putin and his stand-in president, Dmitry Medvedev, had already demonstrated their disregard for public opinion by announcing they would simply swap jobs next year. They even admitted this had been their plan ever since Putin "gave up" the presidency four years ago.

The most vocal opposition leader, a blogger named Alexey Navalny, has dubbed Putin's United Russia party the "party of crooks and thieves" — a sobriquet that has spread far beyond the blogosphere. (The phrase, by dint of repetition, could prove to be the most potent political weapon in Russia today.)

It is sometimes suggested that the spur for change will now come from Russia's growing middle classes, the millions who have thrived in Putin's oil-fuelled boom years. But they are not synonymous with the intelligentsia who initiated the fall of communism and still look to the West for inspiration. Today's middle classes are a mixed bunch, many more concerned to protect their prosperity, even in conditions of Putin-style "stability", than to demand real democracy.

Russian history suggests that change tends to come from the top, not from the bottom. The million-strong rallies under Gorbachev were possible only once the leadership itself had opened the floodgates. The protests of recent weeks certainly indicate that civil society has finally woken up again in Russia, but the opposition may need to find its voice within the establishment before change can be brought about.

The road to democracy could be a long one. Putin and his cronies will not give up their power and privileges and wealth without a fight. The West would do well to stand back and let things take their course. Provoking the Russian bear is never a good idea.

Angus Roxburgh reported from Moscow for The Sunday Times from 1987-9 and for the BBC from 1991-8. His book, The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, will be published by IB Tauris on January 9