Vlad the terrible

Two years ago Russia's Vladimir Putin was a celebrated champion of democracy. Now he's being called "the Mussolini of Moscow."

Topics: Russia,

Editor’s Note: This story marks the beginning of a new collaboration between Salon and Der Spiegel, the leading German news publication. Like Salon’s arrangement with the Guardian of London, this new agreement with Der Spiegel will ensure that Salon readers are offered more insightful coverage of the world.

It’s only 10 years old, but the Dec. 12 holiday has become one of Russia’s most important. Introduced by former Russian President Boris Yeltsin 10 years ago, the day commemorates the ratification of the Russian constitution. In other words, it was on that day in 1994 that the Soviet Union was buried for good.

Or was it?

Ten days ago, 143 million Russian citizens celebrated the constitution holiday for the very last time. The celebration has been canceled, eliminated, relegated to the dustbin of Russia’s short post-Soviet history. Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted it so.

The choreography, however, continued. On exactly the same day, Putin signed into law a bill that critics view as a massive assault on the spirit of the 10-year-old constitution. Putin now has the power to directly appoint the presidents and governors of Russia’s 88 provinces and republics — his reach, despite ruling out such a law as recently as two years ago, now extends into the highest political offices in the most far-flung corners of his land.

The new law is part of an anti-terrorism package announced in the wake of early September’s hostage crisis in Beslan, which saw an entire elementary school taken hostage and claimed at least 330 lives. The crisis was preceded by a series of bomb attacks on two passenger aircraft, on subways and on railroads. In truth, however, the package was prepared long before Beslan, and shortly before Putin’s reelection in March 2004. Otherwise, the Kremlin could never have managed to push it through parliament in just under four months.

The powers of a king … or dictator
The powers granted Putin under the new laws are immense. Imagine if George Bush could suddenly fire the governor of New York and dissolve the state legislature. Or that German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder suddenly had the power to order the removal of the prime minister of Bavaria and to dissolve the Bavarian state assembly, even in the face of its triple veto. Until now, the popular election of governors has stood for the idea of the decentralized state and a departure from a Soviet-style concentration of power. That power is now concentrated once again.

To be fair, nobody is talking about what popular election of regional rulers had meant for Russia. When Yeltsin urged governors to “take as much sovereignty as you can manage,” many regional potentates interpreted the suggestion as an invitation to set up miniature fiefdoms far away from Moscow. The far-flung corners of the land no longer had such a tight bond to the Kremlin.

Now, however, the primacy of Moscow in Russian politics is to be emphasized. In addition to Putin’s new powers of appointment, a new, restrictive party law is also going into effect. In the future, the parties’ central offices will decide who is placed on party lists for elections to the state Duma, or lower house of parliament. This translates to a system of purely proportional representation — a party with 25 percent of the vote gets a quarter of the Duma seats — which makes it more difficult for candidates to be directly elected to office by local constituencies. Until now, directly elected representatives occupied half of the Duma’s 450 seats. The new law spells the end of independent candidates with no party affiliation. Who this helps in the short term is obvious: Putin’s party, United Russia, already controls two-thirds of the Duma.

When the law comes into effect, the minimum party membership will be five times higher than was required in the past. In addition, the minimum threshold for entry into parliament was increased from 5 percent of the vote to 7 percent. An almost coy-sounding supplementary requirement that at least two parties be represented in parliament shows that Russian lawmakers are clearly aware of the potential consequences of their actions.

An American two-party system?
Western diplomats believe that Putin’s political strategists are, in the long term, aiming for a two-party system based on the American model. But with one significant difference: The Kremlin would establish and control both parties. Valery Bogomolov, deputy secretary of the United Russia party, recently met with veteran German politician and Social Democrat Rudolf Scharping to get advice on establishing a Social Democratic party in Russia. It’s like the Republicans huddling with neoliberals to start a new left-of-center party.

The recently enacted laws extend the list of earlier incursions during Putin’s first term in office to construct a “vertical power structure.” During his first term, the Russian president already managed to deprive the Federation Council (Russia’s upper house of parliament) of its powers. Today, it’s hardly more than a collection of retired bureaucrats. He brought the Duma into line, subjugated the independent judiciary, and brought the independent multiregional media to its knees. In a cabinet meeting last Thursday, Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov raged that “the stupefaction of the people must end.”

Nevertheless, the characterization of Putin as “Moscow’s Mussolini” by Jimmy Carter’s former national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, has found little resonance in Russia. There is certainly evidence of growing dissatisfaction in the country. According to research conducted by the Levada Center, a public opinion research group, the level of popular dissatisfaction has increased by 150 percent within less than one year. In fact, a slim majority of Russians now believe that Russia has embarked on the wrong path.

Russians have few political alternatives on the horizon, even if there are signs that they wish there were — for now, they are more concerned about their daily bread and the loss of an adequate social security system. Four regions will hold gubernatorial run-off elections this Sunday for the last time because the Kremlin’s candidate failed to garner a sufficient number of votes in the initial elections. In the Volgograd region (formerly Stalingrad), more voters in the initial election checked the box on their ballot forms marked “Against all candidates” than voted for the Kremlin party’s candidate. In Kaliningrad, the regional Duma even rejected Putin’s proposed legislation for a new election system.

More than a thousand opponents of the administration, led by former chess world champion Garri Kasparov and including liberals such as economist Grigory Yavlinsky and former Yeltsin advisor Boris Nemzov, as well as communists, recently came together at a conference titled “Russia for Democracy and Against Dictatorship.” But despite their calls for solidarity, there was little evidence that the opposition camp’s resistance to the development of Putin’s now virtually unlimited power has been particularly effective.

Which is why Putin’s proposals to introduce a so-called citizens’ council must be a bitter pill to swallow for Russian liberals — it will become their only forum for dissent following the silencing of their voices in both the parliament and the media.

And even the citizens’ council is controlled by the Kremlin. As a precaution, Putin’s proposal calls for a third of the 126-member council to be appointed directly by the president. This first third would then select another third of the council’s members, while the remainder would be selected in conferences throughout the country. To prevent it from obstructing Russia’s powerful secret service agencies, which are exempt from all public scrutiny, the council would play an advisory but not a supervisory role.

The renaissance of the so-called social employees, a relic of the Soviet era, is an indication of the direction in which Russian civil society is heading. Their job is to exchange information about their fellow citizens with the police at so-called public order supervision offices. It’s been reported that there are 680 of these offices in Moscow alone. The system, reminiscent of the old “Stukatch” system of government informers during the Stalin era, has been popular throughout the country. Armed with video cameras and notebooks, some local groups, such as a group in the western Siberian city of Tyumen that calls itself the “Putinzy,” are even invoking their idol, the Russian head of state.

“We must all realize that the enemy is at the door. The front lines pass through our city, through every street and every house,” the deputy chief of the Kremlin administration, Vladislav Surkov, announced in September. The lively Surkov, former press attaché for oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky and a one-time liberal, is now considered an agitator and a powerful member of the Putin administration. He says that what Russia is now dealing with is a “fifth column of left-wing and right-wing radicals, false liberals and real Nazis.”

Fighting terrorism is a top priority
The government’s 2005 budget reflects the Kremlin’s overwhelming emphasis on fighting terrorism. It includes substantial increases in spending for defense, the police force, the secret service and the judiciary, along with reductions in spending for education and social programs. Russians infected with HIV, for example, estimated at 1 million by the director of the federal AIDS center, can expect even further cuts in state expenditures. They’re currently allotted an annual budget of 77,000, one-fortieth of what experts consider to be necessary.

The Kremlin’s policy of regaining control over the Russian political landscape and social order is being supplemented by strategic efforts to reestablish state control over the country’s globally unmatched raw material reserves and its key industries.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of Yukos and, with former assets of $8 billion, once the richest man in the world’s biggest country, may have been the first victim of this policy. Khodorkovsky, accused of tax evasion and fraud and imprisoned for the past 14 months, is consistently taken to court appearances in handcuffs and paraded in front of the media as if he were a sexual offender.

Putin now appears to be taking steps to counter accusations of his allegedly one-sided harsh treatment of Yukos. VimpelCom, the country’s second-largest wireless telephone provider, with annual revenues of  billion, has received initial demands for payment of back taxes in the amount of 9 million for 2001 alone — almost four times its net earnings for that year.

VimpelCom’s shares temporarily lost about a third of their value. Oil multinational TNK-BP faces demands for payment of back taxes in the amount of 8 million, also for 2001. Oligarch Mikhail Fridman controls both TNK-BP and VimpelCom. Each new attack launched by the federal tax authorities represents a disagreement between the affected parties and the prevailing system. Fridman apparently ran awry of the Russian telecommunications minister’s business interests.

Once again, the country’s wealthy class is reacting by taking its capital elsewhere — about $12 billion this year alone. On Dec. 9, when the demands for payment of back taxes against VimpelCom became known, the Moscow Stock Exchange, already a relatively modest operation, experienced its most dramatic decline for the entire year. And according to industry reports, foreign investors are pulling out of the Russian market in droves.

Russia no longer an economic basket case
Nevertheless, oil continues to flow in the world’s second-largest oil-producing country, and at prices that favor the producers. Russia’s foreign currency reserves have increased to $120 billion. Only six years after Boris Yeltsin declared that Russia was bankrupt, the rating agencies have now upgraded the country from the status of a borrower nation to that of a lender nation.

The 6.7 percent growth in the Russian economy this year serves as an indication of macroeconomic stability. However, the country is completely dependent on its oil and gas production, and even Deputy Minister of Economic Development Andrei Sharonov is now warning that the rate of growth could drop by half as early as next year if the state continues to intervene in economic affairs, using the tax authorities as its enforcer. Without foreign investment, Putin’s blunt demands for a doubling in the gross domestic product within ten years will remain unfulfilled.

The president has repeatedly made it clear that he’s more than willing to trade with the West. But its efforts to give him a lesson in democracy are unwelcome. And his actions reflect this sentiment. Despite some political signs to the contrary, it does appear that new fences are being erected between Russia and the outside world.

Members of the lower and upper houses of the Russian parliament have prepared draft legislation on ways to limit the spread of Internet content in Russia. United Russia has now submitted a bill in the Duma that would impose new restrictions on foreigners entering and leaving the country.

Under paragraph 19 of the bill, anyone who comments unfavorably on “spiritual, cultural” or other recognized social values in Putin’s realm, or who “seeks to damage the international reputation of Russia” is to be denied entry.

This language appears to leave little room for interpretation. And even less for criticism.

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Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. ) For more from Europe’s most-read newsmagazine, please visit Spiegel Online at http://www.spiegel.de/international or subscribe to our daily newsletter.

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