The Man without a Face

Posted: October 10, 2016

The Man without a Face

Vladimir Putin changed the political system of Russia from a semblance of democracy experienced in the Yeltsin era to a new form of autocracy. In this new form of political system, the power rested squarely on centralized areas. This change in the political system facilitated his consolidation of power around himself. Although this change was at first a ray of hope for the Russian pride that had been lost, it did not turn out as the people expected (Gessen 2012). Additionally, communism was largely replaced by institutions as the centers of faith for the system (Gessen 2012, 149). This move made consolidating power very easy since it was already within institutions that could vey easily be consolidated into the administration. Even the electoral process that introduces some variety within the administration is altered to such a state that gives Putin significant control over who makes it to the administration and legislative bodies. Lastly, the people within the system were changed to only include his loyalists while purging those opposing his rule. In this way, the system was secured from within as well since his loyalists had no reason to move against him.

Putin controlled the media and the influence it wields. In the Chechnya war, Putin imposed restrictions on media content to be published. The media reporters would have to walk around with guards who would carefully listen to the questions asked and the responses given. The guards ensured the news reports from the process were not damaging to the administration. Secondly, detention was instituted as a punishment for dissident journalists. Babitsky, a US reporter, was detained for violating the embedding policy. His detention was within Putin’s knowledge and was intended to send a message to the journalist community (Gessen 2012, 45). Furthermore, after his interview with Larry King and the realization of the power of the media, Putin acquired controlling stakes in all media houses in the name of the state. He strong-armed the control of the media out of city hall into his own domain (Gessen 2012, 151).  The control of the press was meant to monitor the flow of information. This control was crucial in building a tightly controlled system, loyal to him, without dissidents.

It is inaccurate to state that Putin destroyed years of progress. This statement holds because even before his assent into power, Russia was plagued by a series of misfortunes. The previous regimes were plagued with so much trouble that any progress from one regime was destroyed in the transition to the next regime. The first example would be the coup that put Yeltsin in power. This coup is an illustration that there was already dissatisfaction with the government. It would be false to conclude that there was a succession of “years of progress." Additionally, before Putin's ascent to power, Russia had lived through tough economic times in 1990 and 1998. The financial crises at the time are attributed to legislation reforms that turned out to be disastrous. This crises turned around during Putin's reign when the real disposable income for Russia doubled. Further still, the establishment of democracy after Stalin’s rule cannot be termed a success because the people had lost all confidence in the system.

The phrase “Once a KGB always a KGB” has proved true. First, Putin uses forceful tactics and eliminates opposition through assassination which is the modus operandi of the KGB. Several incidences of poisoning of agents who spoke against the administration have been reported. These agents, some of whom stay abroad, are poisoned with radioactive substances and heavy metals Second, Putin’s relationship with other KGB agents and members shows a strong identity with the organization. He has most of the KGB cronies in office and even structures his administration to a form similar to the closed KGB structure. Third, In the matter of Babitsky, the journalist, the KGB sentiment in brought out very strongly in Putin’s realization that a country is only as strong as the fear it inspires and the media should be loyal.

Putin manipulates the apartment bombings at Buynaksk during the Chechnya war for political mileage. These bombings occurred during a three-week period of bombings in major Russian cities. The Chechnya region was at war around this time. The war had become erupted in 1994 and was still raging by the time of the elections. Putin presented as an argument to the public that the war had not ended, and therefore, it was the Chechen terrorists that were to blame for the deaths and damages that resulted from the Bynaksk bombings. The effect of this conflict is that the nation saw it fit to place their faith in the uncompromising Putin and Yeltsin considered himself a failure and stood aside to pave the way for Putin. The account of the war and the surrounding events presented by the media and the account given by Gessen contrast significantly. The media explains that the strife between the Chechens and the Russian republic began in 1991 when the Chechens declared independence from the state, against the wishes of the government (New York Times 1995). The Chechnya conflict is documented as being the result of strife over oil reserves and ideological differences (BBC 2015). The situation is also reported as being a result of petty hooliganism rather than racial sentiment (Schwirtz 2006). Following the string of bombings in 1999, around the time of the Buynaksk bombings, the leader of the Chechen region presents an appeal to the US government to intervene in the conflict (New York Times 1999). However, the article reports the matter in a neutral tone which does not point to any side being on the right as Putin’s argument of countering terrorism is reiterated too. A clearer stance is seen much later when the media hails Putin as a hero for going to war on the Chechnya matter and taking action in the 1999 chaos, which included the bombings (Wong 2011). He is awarded recognition as the number one anti-terrorist and national hero for showing a firmness that assured the general Russian population of their security against terrorism and is even awarded a Confucius Prize for it. Gessen’s account is less enthusiastic of Putin’s concern for the war on terrorism. Gessen argues that the war may have been orchestrated. She investigates critically and shows that the FSB was implicated in the bombings. The FSB presented shifting accounts of their role in the bombings, from rescue plans to military drills, which raises the suspicion that these stories were being fabricated to cover up their real role in the bombings. It is even more convincing that the FSB was involved given that Putin was the head of the FSB at the time of the bombings, and he was the greatest gainer of the bombings. He became the president. The logical conclusion is that the war was possibly a means to an end. Gessen’s account paints Putin as the very terrorist that the media reports him to be fighting. While the media would award Putin a medal for his swift action in the bombings during the Chechnya war, Gessen would have him blamed for taking advantage of the war and the bombings to further his political career.

United Russia Party is viewed as a party of crooks and thieves mostly because of the plundering and arm-stronging that is exercised by the administration. The desire to possess what rightfully belonged to others is pointed at as the greatest vulnerability in the Putin administration. The entire inner circle seems to be afflicted with this desire and is blamed for the poor performance of the state on the corruption index as assessed by Transparency International.  Office holders and contractors feed from the bribe-taking, deal-skimming and nepotism. The perpetration of these schemes is done under the umbrella of the administration. Navalny reveals schemes by the state officials that are hidden in plain sight as overpriced or unnecessary tenders and extravagant expenditure by the Russian states and ministries. Consequently, he coins the phrase “The Party of Crooks and Thieves” to characterize the administration. Putin is presented as the arch-practitioner. The interview with Marina Sayle reveals that Putin ran an embezzlement fund scam which was covered in the article "President of a Corrupt Oligarchy" by Sayle. Gessen proposes that the deeply entrenched attachment to material wealth was a relationship that Putin nurtured in his University period. Further still, there is obvious snatching of businesses by the states for purposes that benefit them. An example is the media industry that is now wholly state-controlled. The prison system, which is ideally meant as a correctional facility for law breakers, is filled with entrepreneurs in Russia. These are the individuals whose businesses were wrongfully confiscated by the members of the administration.

Although many ills are presented about the Putin administration, one outstanding contribution by the man is his advocacy for sovereignty of states. On more than one occasion, Putin has acknowledged the need for states to have the power of self-determination. In a changing world of increased communication and interaction, the lines between international and national concerns is very easily blurred. The quest for international peace and the potentially global consequences of geopolitics prompt international organizations to seek solutions that would benefit all. Putin is a vocal opponent to the western efforts of enforcing regime changes. This trait seems to have been picked up from Putin’s youth when he had to stand against bullies so often and demand what was his by right. The desire for autonomy is projected on an international level by Putin where he stands for the sovereignty of individual states. One instance is the recognition of the sovereignty of the Syrian state. Initially, Russian forces had occupied Syria to aid president Bashar-Al-Assad to maintain the peace in the region. However, Putin withdrew forces and offered help in establishing peace within the region (MacFarquhar 2016). The argument for this action was that there is a need to have more stable changes originate from within the states rather than having political shifts engineered by outside governments. This expression is a small but significant step in the right direction for international relations. This constancy in the advocacy for the sovereignty of states in the face of opposition from the greater part of the international community, including the United Nations Security Council is a significant contribution of Putin.

Russia is portrayed as a country that responds best to the politics of fear (Gessen 2012, 238). The Western World has a significant voice on the matters of power and terrorism. The western world uses terrorism as a license to mediate the political proceedings of involved states. Examples of such states are Libya and Syria. The Western World which holds a significant political swing on such matters has introduced military action in this states that more often leaves the states in a worse state than before. Putin offers open opposition to the West while exhibiting an approach to terrorism that is uncompromising. He is a vocal advocate of the need to have states retain their power of self-determination. The outcomes of Western intervention in political matters stir fear in the Russian people. The people, therefore, rally behind the brave leader. He exploits the national fervor of the people to consolidate further institutions and mandate to his administration. Also, the uncompromising view on terrorism is adopted by Putin to consolidate his own power as is seen in the incident of the school attack in Beslan. After the attack, Putin amasses more power to himself by declaring that he will appoint the governors personally and that voting is for a party and not a candidate (Gessen 2012, 209-210). The choice of who to install as the candidate is left to the party, where he has more control. In this way, he can install forces loyal to him and consolidate his own power. By the time all of the amendments were implemented, the only elected federal-level public official, was the President. Putin had managed to reshape the administration in such a way that he had full control over it, in the name of countering terrorism. To consolidate his geopolitical influence, Putin’s actions, which seem protective against terrorism and the consequences of it are powered by the fact that the West readily portrays Russia as a facilitator of terrorist activity. Russian involvement is even suspected in the 9/11 bombing.

The book is appropriately titled The Man without a Face. The title alludes allegorically to Putin's state before entry into public politics. Putin was like an apparition in the dark that is indistinguishable from the background. No one could have expected him to take power. His election by the public is portrayed to be an illusion on the part of the voters. The public was so busy electing an imaginary president that they were blind to the signs of his regime (Gessen 2012, 154). Such an illusion was only facilitate by the fact that no one knew this man and it was very easy to cast him in the shape of their hopes and expectations. Putin was the new face in the public sphere that offered hope of redemption. His anonymity did not just begin with his election. It was a trait he had even as a KGB agent. As he assumed leadership at the KGB, he was a nobody to most of the officials. For all his achievements, no one knew him before. He was without a face.

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