In Russia’s recent history, 31 December 1999 has turned out to be as significant as 26 December 1991, when the curtains fell on the 74-year-long history of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, marking the end of the Cold War and tilting the balance of power towards the United States. And the other date marked the beginning of the political career of a former KGB sleuth, who still determines the fate of Russia by undermining the democratic system that the people tried to establish after the fall of the Soviet Union.
At the same time, however, his ability to flex his muscle against the major geopolitical power centres has earned him fans across the world. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, who is still nostalgic about the imperial power of the Soviet Union, has been ploughing a lonely furrow in the tumultuous terrain of international politics. His belligerent posturing towards the US in the ongoing civil war in Syria has catapulted him to a position where he might just succeed in taking on the US’s domination of the world.
Putin, an ardent fan and practitioner of judo, seems to apply the logic of the martial art to politics. Victory in judo depends on the player’s felicity in upsetting the opponent with a quick move before he can plan an attack. Putin’s pre-emptive moves made some political observers call him a ruthless leader in domestic politics as well as a cunning strategist who could upturn the geopolitical apple cart of the rest of the West.
Putin’s parents were factory workers in St Petersburg, the capital of the Tsarist Russia. He grew up to become a sleuth and worked for the KGB, Soviet Union’s main security agency from 1954 until its break-up. During the Perestroika (restructuring) and Glasnost (openness) years under Mikhail Gorbachev — the fag end of the Communist regime — Putin worked in East Germany, and post the KGB’s dissolution, he became a fulltime politician.
On 31 December 1999, Boris Yelstin became the first leader in the history of Russia to give up power voluntarily, and in his farewell address, he surprised many by appointing Putin as acting President. This, many observers feel, happened because of the blitzkrieg campaign led by oligarchs such as Boris Berezovsky, who made huge profits during the privatisation drive that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. Almost all the Russian oligarchs wanted Putin to be President. “The decision was supported in principle by all oligarchs… After all, the important issue is that the President should continue being loyal to the entrepreneurial oligarchs,” Claes Ericson writes in The Oligarchs: Money and Power in Capitalist Russia.
Russia was still reeling from the setback in Chechnya. Three erstwhile Warsaw Pact allies had joined the US-led NATO. During the Yelstin era, Russia even defaulted on its debt payments. Oligarchs controlled the State’s assets and made hay from unbridled privatisation. The people were looking for a “strong” leader. But nobody knew that the “new kid” on the post-Soviet, Russian block, Putin, would go on to change the course of Russian history once again.
Going by the poll ratings, when Putin took over as acting President, unlike the oligarchs, the majority of the people were not impressed. But he turned the tide by following up on an opportunity that had been presented to him in September 2000.
Described after the 9/11 attacks in the US as “Russia’s 11 September”, multiple bombings in Moscow and other cities killed 300 people. The attacks were blamed on rebels from Chechnya, where a separatist movement was gaining ground and had already made Yelstin’s Russia taste defeat. Putin tapped into the mood of the moment and advocated ruthless pursuit of the Chechen rebels. Russian nationalist pride, badly battered after many setbacks on the international front, found in Putin its champion and saviour. Faced now with a mysterious and deadly “enemy”, the people stood with Putin and his popularity soared.
“The nation rallied round Putin, triggering a war wave that he used to grab full hold of the reins of power,” Ben Judah, author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladmir Putin, wrote in the New Statesman. “Without it there would have been no President Putin, let alone the Putin era. His poll ratings soared to 79 percent by the end of 2000. When he promised to recapture Chechnya, Russian TV hosts and anchors were whipped into a state of hysteria, calling for Moscow to use ‘napalm’ and for ‘carpet bombing’ of Grozny. The frenzy for war made Putin. Back in St Petersburg, his dying father could not believe it. ‘My son is like a Tsar!’ he said.”
The mystery surrounding the attacks, which also came to known as the “apartment bombings”, and the even more mysterious murders of two members of an independent commission that was formed to probe the bombings, led many to suspect the hand of Russian Intelligence.