Prime Ministership, Acting Presidency, First Term: Coverage of Putin August 1999-May 2004

As the current news cycle revolves around Russian lawyers, the Trump family, compromising information and, inevitably, Vladimir Putin, I’ve been delving into older news reports of the man, using the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, two reputable papers with slightly different bents. So far, I’ve read articles about Putin from August 1999, when he was nominated to be Yeltsin’s Prime Minister, to May 2004, when he was inaugurated for his second term. Here, I’m first going to draw out some of the most important events in these five years, and then nail down the broader trends that stuck out to me the most.

Putin’s first appearance as a significant political figure came in August, 1999, when he was nominated to be Boris Yeltsin’s fifth Prime Minister in seventeen months. At first an enigma, American media had little to go on about Putin. Within months, however, he began what would become known as “Putin’s war,” the Second Chechen War. Without delving too deeply into the complexities of Chechnya, it was a republic within the Soviet Union that won defacto independence from Russia after Yeltsin’s war in the mid 1990s. In 1999, Putin began his war to retake Chechnya. Immediately, news outlets struck a condemnatory tone. The Wall Street Journal described it with the phrase “ethnic cleansing” in October 1999, and the Washington Post marked Putin’s use of the conflict to gain political popularity. This popularity was only solidified by Yeltsin’s January 2000 resignation, which vaulted Putin into the role of acting President three months before the election, which he handily won in March. Both papers colored this as less than democratic, a call back to pre-Yeltsin era; “The election,” the Post’s David Hoffman wrote in January 2000, “is looking more like it is taken from a page in the history of the Soviet one party state.”

Vladimir Putin in 1999, an unknown becoming Prime Minister. Via BBC

Vladimir Putin in 1999, an unknown becoming Prime Minister. Via BBC

August of 2000 brought the Kursk Submarine disaster, which would set a pattern for the following years. What essentially happened was a submarine sunk in the Barents Sea, killing the entire crew. The official handling of the situation was condemned, and Putin was widely criticized for not leaving his vacation for several days before coming to the scene. In reporting the disaster, the Post and the Journal began to seriously question Putin’s competency for the first time. As would happen again through the next several years, Putin was initially silent, and when he spoke shifted blame away from himself. As Putin was under fire at home for the first time, the Post wrote that “The good news is that Russia is no longer a country where a KGB man can control all information and ignore shifts in public opinion.” As ironic as that may seem now, it represents the media view of Putin at first: though he was problematic, there was a belief that he would still have to answer for his actions.

One of the most significant moments in this early period was September 11. Obviously a traumatic date for the United States and a significant one for the world, 9/11 presented Putin with an opportunity. His Chechen war was still slowly burning and had remained a point of contention between him and the international community. From its start, Putin had framed it as a war against international terrorists, and now Bush declared a “war on terror.” Putin immediately reached out and connected his own long conflict with the one America was now facing. The media held no delusions about Putin’s support, however. Neither paper had ever softened its criticism for the Chechen war, and both were wary of what an alliance would mean or cost for the US. They both emphasized, however, that this could be a turning point in US-Russia relations, especially as Putin offered his countries assistance to Bush.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, via NPR

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, via NPR

In October of 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oligarch believed to be the wealthiest man in Russia at the time, was arrested for fraud and tax evasion. Although the Journal especially liked to talk about Putin as a reformer and his “efforts to limit the role of business in politics,” neither paper framed Khodorkovsky’s arrest as such, seeing it as blatantly political. A few months earlier, the Post’s Peter Baker wrote that it was “clear that only those [oligarchs] who challenged [Putin] would face trouble.” This was not the first example of Putin using his power to work against those who spoke out, but it became more high profile, in part due to Khodorkovsky’s chairmanship of Yukos, a major Russian oil company.

The Parliamentary elections of December 2003 and the Presidential election of March 2004 were portrayed by the papers as obviously noncompetitive. The Duma elections in 2003 were condemned by the state department, and not only the media but the broader public began to see Russia as increasingly nondemocratic. The Post in February talked about “Putin’s upcoming reelection,” not bothered with the possibility he might not be reelected. It was portrayed as an inevitable victory. And, indeed, Putin was reelected and, in May, inaugurated for his second term.

Several themes emerged throughout my reading, which I want to take note of and observe how they continue or develop as I continue research.

  1. Who is he?

From the earliest coverage that attempted to parse the possible motives of the new Prime Minister, both papers were continually asking this question. Putin remained an enigma over the four years. Even as they condemned him, they maintained that we did not have a full picture or complete understanding of the man. Indeed, the Journal ran an article following Putin’s reelection—after four and a half years of seeing how he ruled—saying that it was “unclear how he intends to use it [his power].” From 2017, it is perhaps easier to see that as a silly statement, but even in 2004, Putin had already nearly eliminated an independent press, conducted a brutal war in Chechnya, and jailed more than one opponent. The idea that Putin was still a mystery seems a little unlikely.

  1. Duplicity

One reason Putin remained an enigma to the press, however, may be that his actions often belied his words, and he sometimes took seemingly contradictory stances. Indeed, the man himself seems, to these papers, to be a contradiction. He is unqualified, but competent; he is cool and collected, but snaps at reporters; he objects to NATO but wants to be included. The papers presented all these and more sides of Putin, which led to a muddled view of the man and his policy.

  1. Distinction between economic and social policies

One such contradiction that these papers deal with is the undeniable economic growth Russia saw in the early Putin years, and the undeniable authoritarian streak that began to show as well. The Journal was especially adept at distinguishing between Putin’s economic policies, often praising initiatives such as his 13% flat tax, and, basically, everything else he did.

  1. Historical Comparisons

Initially, Putin’s best quality, in the eyes of media, was that he was not Boris Yeltsin. The comparison would always be favorable for Putin: his predecessor had spent eight years as president, his own decline running parallel with economic downturns and stagnation in Russia. Unlike the drunken and ill Yeltsin, Putin was young, fit, and composed, and it was through this lens of comparison we first saw him. Later, some comparisons to Stalin arose, though the papers were mainly dismissive of the idea. I imagine it is one that will be revisited as I continue my research. Putin even drew comparisons to earlier times, both papers a few times using the word “czar.” The Journal’s Gregory White and Jeanne Whalen in July of 2003 suggested that “Russia has reverted to its pre-communist experience.” It makes sense that the media, so baffled by Putin as a man, unable to completely figure him, would draw on historical figures to try to make sense of him.

  1. Forwards or backwards?
Bush and Putin in Texas in 2001. Via MSNBC

Bush and Putin in Texas in 2001. Via MSNBC

The most important question to the media seemed to be whether, as the Post wrote in March of 2000, “eight and a half years of liberty under Yeltsin were only a bright interlude—or the beginning of a new era in Russian history.” The papers could never decide which direction Putin was moving; as mentioned before, even as he was elected for his second term, there were still questions about whether he would use his mandate to open up or to crack down. This question also applied to his relationship with America and the West; would he grow warmer towards the west, as his friendship with George W Bush suggested, or would he push against closer ties? By 2004, with Putin and Bush on good terms, the papers seemed to think the former.

 

Thanks for reading this whole long blog post. I’m learning how to organize my notes better, so that my second post might be a little more concise. As anyone who follows my twitter can tell you, I’ve been deep into this world and I keep finding fascinating snippets. It’s hard to say that reading about Vladimir Putin’s tenure is fun, but it’s certainly engaging, and I look forward to seeing how these trends continue, what new ones emerge, and how the narrative shifts. I’ll see you all in 2008; no spoilers, but we’ll head to Israel and South Africa, we’ll see who 2007’s person of the year is, and we’ll get a brand new President (you won’t believe who he names Prime Minister!). As a thank you for reading all the way down here, here’s a video of Vladimir Putin’s first appearance on SNL.