Putin as Russia's Franklin Roosevelt?

Russian president's attempt to capitalize on FDR's legacy raises some eyebrows

March 04, 2007|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun Staff

Moscow -- Nothing in politics happens by accident here, and so it is with the latest image circulating in the carefully choreographed world of Russian political affairs: that of Vladimir Delano Roosevelt.

It's an unlikely parallel - that between President Vladimir V. Putin and America's FDR - but none other than the Russian president's chief ideologist was shopping it at a similarly unlikely conference in Moscow last month marking the 125th anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt's birth.

The topic: "Lessons of the New Deal for Modern Russia and the World."

Russia doesn't normally, much less willingly, take lessons from anyone, except perhaps when it is convenient. And, for an afternoon, it was. So Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the Kremlin administration, stood and cited FDR as an "ideological ally" and urged Putin to strengthen his hand and "use the potential of presidential power to the maximum degree for the sake of overcoming crisis."

As Roosevelt did.

"It seems to me there are amazing similarities between the ideas and emotions that drive our society today and those that propelled America in Roosevelt's time," Surkov said in his speech at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, which prompted a full page of coverage in the nation's most popular newspaper the next day. "It's fair to say that if in the 20th century, Roosevelt was our military ally, then in the 21st century he is our ideological ally."

There is another reason some believe the comparison has taken off. It's part of a plan to get Putin to do what Roosevelt did after his second term: Run for a third.

Putin himself, who has said he counts FDR as one of his heroes, has fostered the imagery. Izvestiya columnist Aleksandr Arkhangelsky noted as much last month, saying it was Putin who "set the fashion for all things Rooseveltian" when he quoted FDR in a speech to parliament last year.

"We have stepped on toes and we will continue to tread on them in the future," Putin said in his annual state-of-the-nation address, as Roosevelt did in one of his famous "fireside chats," in 1934. "They are the toes of those who seek high positions or wealth, or perhaps both, by the short path, at the expense of the general good."

The Russian president, in Arkhangelsky's words, used "the majestic American example to highlight and elevate Putin's own `New Deal' - fighting the oligarchy, overcoming the Great Depression, establishing state order."

But the simile is strained at best. Putin has fought the oligarchy, in a sense - through the state's selective prosecution of the oligarch, the Yukos oil company's founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who dared step out of line politically and now sits in jail.

The 1990s were a time of crippling financial trouble with the utter collapse of the new Russian economy, true, but the situation was no Great Depression - and the soaring price of oil has had as much to do with the nation's recovery as anything.

"State order" has been achieved, no doubt, but mostly because the Kremlin has seized ever more power for itself, at the expense of civil society and dissent, which are viewed not as part of a robust democracy but a threat to one.

In the fall of 2005, Putin announced a series of reform plans known as the "National Projects" - in education, health care, housing and agriculture - that are New Deal-like in name and scope. And he has adeptly, and as often as he is able, projected the image of Russia as a strong, and once again great, nation, which is partly why his approval ratings are exceptionally high. Like FDR, he is often referred to here by his three initials: VVP (which are also the initials, in Russian, for gross domestic product).

Arkhangelsky suggests there are two groups promoting the Rooseveltian image. One is seeking to highlight - and, as is often the custom in politics, exaggerate - Putin's place in history during this, his constitutionally mandated last year in office, as part of the inevitable process of legacy-building.

"The other group," said Arkhangelsky, "they are preparing the soil for him to stay in office for a third and fourth term."

As Roosevelt did.

Gleb Pavlovsky, the Kremlin political consultant who heads the Foundation for Effective Politics, reminded the crowd of this anomaly in American presidential history, as if he needed to, in his own conference speech. He suggested it would be "dangerous" for Putin to step down next year, although the president has repeatedly said he will do so.

"Putin, I'm pretty sure, doesn't want to change the constitution, but I'm afraid that the situation is such that the electorate will want him to stay," Pavlovsky said in an interview, not seeming afraid of that possibility at all.

Boris Titov, head of the business group Dyelovaya Rossiya and a participant at the conference, said most people there recognized how a third term for Putin would differ from a third, and fourth, for Roosevelt.

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