Putin Whets His Appetite for an Authoritarian Banquet

Roundup: Media's Take

Crystia Freeland, writing for the Financial Times (London) (March 13, 2004)

According to a popular Russian saying,"eating increases the appetite". This aphorism is being often applied these days to President Vladimir Putin, who faces tomorrow's ballot more like a monarch approaching a coronation than an incumbent facing the polls. In 1999, when Mr Putin emerged as the Yeltsin clan's chosen successor, he was a relatively obscure apparatchik, whose primary qualification for office, as far as his patrons were concerned, was his demonstrated loyalty to previous masters, even after they had left office.

But his political vision was a mystery. As Sergei Parkhomenko, a leading Russian journalist, put it ahead of Mr Putin's first test at the ballot box in 2000, the candidate was like an Asian bride, whose face would be revealed to her bridegroom only after the wedding. When the veil was lifted, Russia discovered a leader whose essential political beliefs were the exact opposite of his predecessor's. Whereas Boris Yeltsin's impulse was to free things, Mr Putin's is to bring things back under control. He has re-established the Kremlin's grip over national television, brought elected regional governors firmly to heel and decimated organised political opposition.

As he has devoured each additional morsel of freedom from the Yeltsin years, Mr Putin's appetite has increased. One stimulus has been his discovery that the forces that might have chilled Russia's flirtation with authoritarianism - western governments, foreign investors, liberal Moscow elites - have been quiescent or even supportive.

A turning point was this autumn's imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oil baron. In the tense months ahead of his arrest, many wondered whether the president would dare seize Russia's richest businessman. Mr Khodorkovsky believed - and even told me - it would not be easy for Mr Putin to take that final step; even some of his fiercest critics agreed, warning the Kremlin to be wary of alienating the western investors Mr Khodorkovsky had courted and the Russian intellectuals he had financed. But Mr Putin dared - and discovered that both opponents were illusory...

...Many western investors, too, have sympathy with Mr Putin. The Russian stock market is buoyant and western fund managers have assiduously promoted the argument that a strong populist government, untroubled by the niceties of democracy, might be just what Russia needs to reform its economy further .

The problem is that there is no guarantee that authoritarianism, particularly Mr Putin's brand of it, will be any better for Russia than the riotous pluralism that preceded it. Yegor Gaidar, Russia's pre-eminent economist, points out that privatised sectors of the economy, like the oil business, have far outstripped industries such as Gazprom, the state-controlled gas giant, which remain firmly under the Kremlin's control. Privatisation was ugly and unfair, he concedes, but private property does actually work.

And while Mr Putin clearly understands power, he shows few signs of creating an impartial, rules-based structure to enable the economy to develop freely. Indeed, Mr Putin's tools for reasserting authority depend on the economy remaining corrupt and subject to the arbitrary application of the law. Mr Putin inherited a country with a contradictory and incomplete legal framework, a crazy-quilt of Soviet-era and free-market legislation in which every businessman is a potential criminal. That sounds like a bad thing - and, for the economy, it is. But for Mr Putin, it is a vital instrument of control.

Mikhail Fridman, the oligarch who brokered Russia's biggest foreign investment project - BP's Dollars 6.75bn (Pounds 3.7bn) oil deal - and an adept navigator of this perilous environment, told me this was the traditional relationship between the state and the individual dating back to the tsarist era:"Karamzin (the 18th-century Russian historian) said the severity of Russian laws is compensated by the fact that it is not obligatory to follow them. The state establishes rules of the game according to which it is impossible to live. But somehow, everyone lives - but by breaking the rules. And so everyone feels himself to be a criminal. For that reason, it is always easy for the state." Mr Putin likes to talk about the need to restore law and order in Russia. It is the sort of milk and motherhood promise that - obviously - must be a good thing. But in a land where everyone is a criminal in waiting, the"order" thus imposed may well be less just and less prosperous than the chaos it replaces.

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