Was Vladimir Putin’s carefully choreographed plan to return to Russia’s presidency in 2012 a big blow to democracy or a victory for stability?
It all depends on who you ask.
Most Russian Jews, it seems, say that Putin’s return after a four-year stint as prime minister is good news for stability, and that’s good for the country’s Jewish community. Critics, however, say it’s a sign of Russia’s stagnation.
Echoing traditional Jewish sensibilities, Yevgeniy Satanovsky, head of the Institute for Israel and Near Eastern Studies, a think tank in Moscow, says that Jews do not have to worry about Putin.
“Putin is neither an anti-Semite nor anti-Israel,” Satanovsky said.
For Russia’s Jews, whose estimated numbers range from 500,000 to 1 million, Putin marked a departure from the anti-Semitism of past Communist elites and of the once all-powerful KGB, which he served for nearly two decades.
Putin was the first Russian leader to visit Israel, where he attended an official reception. He also visited a Moscow synagogue, participated in candle-lighting ceremonies on Chanukah and reportedly had an open door for one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, Berel Lazar.
While human rights groups reported surges in xenophobic attacks at various times during Putin’s presidency, Jews rarely were the targets.
Lazar said Putin should be credited for driving anti-Semitism out of Russian political discourse.
Politicians in today’s Russia “would not risk taking anti-Semitic or a so-called anti-Zionist stand,” Lazar said. “Any impartial observer should acknowledge Putin’s big role in this.”
As president and prime minister, Lazar said, Putin “paid great attention to the needs of our community and related to us with a deep respect.”
But the Putin regime also earned a reputation for intimidating political opponents and journalists, and rolling back democratic reforms. As evidence, critics say one need look no further than the way he has orchestrated his return to power.
The announcement about the next stage of Putin’s rule over Russia came Sept. 24, when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s handpicked successor to the post, said he would not run in next year’s presidential election. Medvedev then backed Putin’s return to the Kremlin. In return, Putin offered Medvedev the prime minister’s chair in 2012.
Putin, the president from 2000 to 2008, was constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive four-year term. The 2008 arrangement that made Putin the prime minister for four years was widely seen as a sign that Putin would retain control over the reins of power, and his intention to return to the presidency confirms that thinking. With presidential terms extended to six years by Medvedev—presumably with Putin in mind—Putin, who turns 59 this week, could serve as Russia’s president until 2024.
His public approval rating is high and he isn’t expected to meet any formidable political challenges.
Putin’s popularity is explained largely by Russians’ yearning for order and a strong hand skillfully wielded by the Kremlin’s political advisers. Over the years of his rule, Putin effectively sidetracked any real opposition, put the brakes on political dissent on national airwaves and turned Russia’s Parliament—dominated by his United Russia party—into a virtual arm of his regime.
Liberals find his plan to return to the presidency deeply disturbing.
“I’m honestly shaken by the impudence with which this was all done,” Yevgeniya Albats, a prominent Russian Jewish journalist, told Echo Moskvy radio, one of Russia’s few remaining liberal media outlets.
“We have witnessed how all institutions of the Russian Federation were torn down—the constitution, the elections,” said Albats, the editor in chief of The New Times weekly magazine in Moscow.
Critics blame Putin for dismantling many of the democratic achievements of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin; for failing to implement many substantial economic and social reforms; for nurturing widespread corruption; and for creating a system in which only those with ties to his clan can prosper.
Others argue that Putin’s return, no matter how it was orchestrated, is a fair reflection of realities in today’s Russia.
“It may not be happening all nicely, but democracy is not built overnight,” Satanovsky said. “Putin is coming back to power as a real leader of a large political and economic clan. Can it change soon? I don’t see how.”
The early years of Putin’s presidency were marked by Kremlin pressure against Russia’s oligarchs—the once politically influential Russian business tycoons, many of whom were Jews. But in recent years, most leading business figures in Russia have withdrawn from political life, marking a victory for the Kremlin.
Despite the fact that many of those oligarchs were Jewish, Satanovsky notes that Putin never let his political, business and even personal battles “translate into anything anti-Jewish.”
While the Putin era has not been good for democracy in Russia, Jewish life in the country has continued to thrive. Thousands of parents send their children to Jewish schools and camps, and new synagogues and community centers are being added every year. There even are new museums opening in Moscow.
Despite these gains under Putin and his loyal successor Medevedev, a sense of unease left over from the olden days persists among many Jewish community leaders, who declined speak on the record with JTA about the perils of Putin’s cavalier approach toward democracy.
“There is a certain frustration in the society,” said one Jewish leader who asked that his name not to be used. “But the revolution is nowhere near. There is no democracy, and life goes on.”