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Western Press Review: Putin's Russia -- Pursuing Westward Progress Or On Path Back To Statist Repression?

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 30 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Much of the international media's attention today remains focused on Russian politics and the ambitions of a Kremlin steered by President Vladimir Putin. The controversial 25 October arrest of Yukos oil chief Mikhail Khodorkovskii, coupled with an ongoing tussle with Ukraine over control of an island in the Kerch Strait, has many analysts and Kremlin observers reconsidering what to expect from a Russia that in recent years seemed to be set on a liberal, Westward course.


Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute says the controversial arrest on 25 October of Yukos oil CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii has "exposed the complex and deep divisions within [Russia's] elite and public alike about the nature of state control over the economy, the role of big business in politics and the influence of personal wealth [in] a poor society."

In the chaotic, post-Soviet mass privatizations of state enterprises in the 1990s, "no large business in Russia was 'clean'," says Aron. But Yukos had done more than most to bring its practices in line with Western standards. Thus, making Khodorkovskii's oil giant "the scapegoat for the misdeeds of the 1990s makes little sense," Aron says. But Yukos "broke a cardinal rule" by openly contributing to the political opposition. Aron wryly remarks that the "accepted practice would have been to ignore the laws and bribe those who write and enforce them."

Now Russia is witnessing a showdown between two rival economic cultures, the "great-power statist" vs. the "liberal-oligarch." The liberal-oligarch system fosters "fiscal discipline, low inflation, lower corporate and income taxes, [private] property rights, a decline of bureaucratic interference, the continuing privatization of state assets, and improvements in corporate governance and transparency." In contrast, the great-power statist culture "seeks to increase government control over the economy and, inevitably, civil society."

The statists needed "a decisive victory over not just a giant private conglomerate but a symbol of a more open, rapidly modernizing Russian capitalism. As the best-known Russian company inside and outside the country, Yukos fits the bill."


Writing in "The Moscow Times," independent defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says both the Khodorkovskii arrest and the ongoing territorial dispute with Ukraine over Tuzla Island in the Kerch Strait are "clear manifestations of the transformation of President Vladimir Putin's Russia into an aggressive, nationalistic police state."

Citing a Soviet-era map from the 1950s printed in Moscow, Felgenhauer says Tuzla "definitely belongs to Ukraine." Although a sand bar once connected Tuzla to the Russian mainland, he says Moscow "does not seem to have any legal grounds to claim Tuzla." He says the unilateral construction of a dam in place of the absent sand bar "to 'reunify' Tuzla with Russia is a wrongful attempt to seize the sovereign territory of a neighboring state."

The dam was begun by the Krasnodar authorities, whom Felgenhauer calls "some of the most nationalistic and xenophobic" in Russia. But the Kremlin and the Russian government "have fully supported the attempted annexation." Tuzla itself is "a virtually worthless pile of sand." But the real "prize" is "the domination of Ukraine, the annexation of the Crimea and, possibly, other [provinces] inhabited by ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians."

The Putin regime and the nationalists "want Russia to dominate other CIS countries politically and economically." And Felgenhauer says the Western democracies, who had begun working more closely with Moscow, "cannot possibly form stable partnerships or alliances with aggressive, nationalistic states like Putin's Russia."


Writing in "The Times" of London, Anatole Kaletsky asks: "Is Russia moving back towards some form of Stalinist dictatorship? Or is the transition from communism to capitalism now irreversible?" Kaletsky says both options may very well be true. Russia "probably is reverting to an authoritarian society," in which the president and his supporters "keep a tight rein on political activity, as well as maintaining a monopoly on power."

While some observers have expressed concern this trend might frighten away foreign investment and undermine Russia's economic growth, Kaletsky says it probably will not cause major problems for the Russian economy. The "idealistic linkage [between] free markets and 'free peoples' was never more than a rhetorical device," employed by Cold War-era Western leaders like former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

"To judge by recent events, Russia may well turn its back on the experiment with democracy initiated by [former Soviet Premier] Mikhail Gorbachev." But Kaletsky says, "even if this happens, there is no reason that its economy should suffer or Western investors take fright."

The real concern is not Russia's economy "but its political development and its pro-Western orientation." Putin "may want to make Russia an orderly one-party state by taking control of the media and making sure that concentrations of wealth are not transformed into rival centers of power." Moreover, his former KGB cronies, the "siloviki," have been nudging him away from his Westward path. "In the end," writes Kaletsky, "it comes down [to] whether the Russian state can tolerate political independence."


"Names make news," says Tomas Avenarius in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung." The Kremlin's presidential administrator, Aleksandr Voloshin, is threatening to resign as a result of the controversial arrest last week of Mikhail Khodorkovskii, Russia's richest man and head of the Yukos oil company. The departure of Voloshin, a sly political manager, Avenarius says, "would upset the balance of power between Russia's liberal economic robber-capitalists and the authoritarian secret police faction in the Kremlin."

The conflict between these two groups of President Putin's toadies would have tragic consequences for another group, the silent liberals, who are reluctant to relinquish their hopes of a "normal" Russia someday emerging from Putin's ever-more authoritarian state.

So far, the pragmatic Russian president has managed to hold on to the reins of power and keep both the oligarchs and the secret police, or siloviki, under control. But now battle lines are being drawn and are escalating in advance of Russian parliamentary elections in December.

Avenarius predicts that Voloshin's departure could be followed by the resignation of most of the liberals in the administration, in which case all power would then reside with Putin and the secret police. "This would be more than a government crisis," Avenarius says. "This would probably be the end of economic and political reform."

Avenarius visualizes a grim future for Russia: "It is clear that a state in which the secret police hold a key position in politics and the economy has no prospects of an ongoing development. The secret service and its rampant bureaucracy will bring the country to its knees."


Writing in France's "Le Figaro," Patrick de Saint-Exupery discusses Russian President Vladimir Putin's so-called "dictatorship of the law." In comments broadcast on 27 October in which he alluded to the arrest of Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovskii, Putin used firm and unforgiving rhetoric, saying everyone must be equal before the law, regardless of how many billions one has in the bank.

Such remarks would appeal to common sense, Saint-Exupery says, if they did not so clearly fly in the face of reality. Daily life in Russia often demands the payment of bribes, even to official channels, in order to get anything accomplished. In many companies, salaries are paid in cash, only a fraction of which is declared. And the application of the law is not the same for all, he says.

No company can operate without handsomely paying a protection racket - informally known as a "krysha," or "roof" - for "security." The pervasiveness of the krysha system is due not to a lack of laws but to an overabundance of them. Russia's vast bureaucracy makes it necessary to hire a shady intermediary whose sole function is to oil the wheels of the "incomprehensible" state apparatus in order to get anything done.


In a contribution to "The Moscow Times," Dmitrii Furman of the Institute of Europe and the Russian Academy of Sciences says recent strong-arm moves by Russian President Vladimir Putin actually betray the weakness of the presidency and not its growing strength.

The continuing territorial dispute with Ukraine over the island of Tuzla in the Kerch Strait, which connects the Aral and Black seas, may have begun based on a unilateral decision by a provincial governor. Krasnodar Krai Governor Aleksandr Tkachev claims it was his decision to begin building the dam to reconnect the island, which is Ukrainian territory, to the Russian mainland.

Furman says, "One thing is clear: A major foreign policy decision, which nearly brought Russia to the brink of war with a neighboring country, was made not by the president but by a provincial governor." Tkachev "obviously isn't worried. And Vladimir Putin is staying mum."

After the Khodorkovskii arrest, the public looked to Putin to take a stand. But aside from vague murmurings about everyone being "equal before the law," Putin did not have much to offer. "This is not how a leader behaves when he possesses real power," Furman says. He writes: "Putin's actions in the last week cannot be explained away as confusion or the result of his conflicting ambitions. His behavior reveals weakness, pure and simple." Putin is now an "extremely cautious leader who depends excessively on his supporters."