As a key member of Russian President Vladimir Putin's party visited top officials in Washington, concern and outrage over the arrest of Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovskii and its implications for Russia's economic and political development were voiced by international experts based in the U.S. capital.
Washington, 5 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Is Russia slowly descending toward dictatorship under President Vladimir Putin?
International experts gathered in Washington yesterday believe it looks that way following the recent arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovskii, Russia's richest man and, until his resignation this week, chief executive of one of its most lucrative oil companies, Yukos.
"I think that this is by far the deepest political crisis President Putin has faced in his presidency. I think that it is a defining crisis. We have only seen the beginning of it. It will have to go much further," said Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist and onetime adviser to the governments of Russia and Ukraine. Aslund was joined at the forum by Radek Sikorski, a former senior Polish official as well as Leon Aron, a Russian emigre scholar with the American Enterprise public policy institute.
None of them minced words in assessing the arrest of Khodorkovskii, who was seized off his private jet in Siberia on 25 October. Subsequently, prosecutors froze more than 50 percent of Yukos shares, a move that caused the Moscow bourse to nosedive briefly.
Khodorkovskii, meanwhile, sits in a Moscow prison. He faces up to 10 years if convicted of committing fraud and tax evasion.
Aron, who moderated the forum, said that by singling out the Yukos chief for actions that were once the rule among Russian businessmen, the Kremlin has dealt a blow to its image and its own reform efforts. "The rule of law, the trust between the government and its citizens, the judges' independence, even the very specific and explicit articles of the new and progressive criminal code all were severely undermined and subverted," he said.
Putin said the arrest was part of the normal functioning of the judicial system, part of the state in which he should not and could not interfere.
But many observers in the West and in Russia say they believe that Khodorkovskii was singled out because he had begun to criticize Putin, finance opposition parties and influence the State Duma, the Russian lower house of parliament.
Such activities were seen as more threatening to the Kremlin, these observers say, given next month's Duma elections as well as Putin's re-election challenge next year.
Still, things may look grim now, but Aron noted that there are at least signs of protest to Khodorkovskii's arrest from across the political spectrum -- as well as from some remaining private media outlets. He expressed hope their voices would be heard.
So did Aslund. But the Swedish expert noted with dismay that until last summer, Putin had appeared to be playing the influence of the former KGB and the oligarchs against one another without coming down firmly on either side. "But now, all of a sudden, he seems to have turned himself into the KGB president. And it's really up to President Putin today to prove to us, and more importantly to the Russians, that fact is not the case," he said.
Perhaps the strongest criticism of Putin at the forum came from Sikorski, a former deputy defense and deputy foreign minister of Poland. Sikorski cited a recent poll that said 73 percent of Russians would like to join the European Union. He said there is a yearning in Russia to become a "normal country" and that even Putin had spoken of the ruble becoming a normal convertible currency and for Russians to have the international respect to travel the world without visas, like Europeans.
But Sikorski said countries just don't do certain things if they want to join the EU, and accused Russia of failing to properly internalize its Soviet past, respect minority and human rights, and having too many officials drawn from military and intelligence circles. Putin, for example, came from the KGB.
He said the West should strengthen ties to Ukraine and the Caucasus and resist any attempt to rebuild the Soviet or Russian empire. He added: "Europe and America, together, should strengthen infrastructure links to Ukraine, should fulfill our obligations under the security guarantees in the NATO-Ukraine charter, and we should hold Russia to account for the military presence in [Transdniester] and human rights abuses elsewhere."
Sikorski also suggested he believes there may be truth behind accusations, made by exiled tycoon Boris Berezovskii and others, that Russian intelligence forces were behind the blowing up of Moscow apartment blocks in 1999, which sparked the Chechen war that lifted Putin's standing and catapulted him to the presidency.
Regarding Khodorkovskii, he said the oligarch's political campaign funding was considered a particular threat to the Kremlin, as it could end up helping to deprive Putin of the constitutional parliamentary majority needed to change the rules to allow him to serve after his second and last term would end in 2008.
Given the nature of Putin's rule, Sikorski said the West should shun him, allowing him no more tea with the British queen, summits with U.S. President George W. Bush at his Texas ranch, or hobnobbing at international summits.
The former Polish official added that Putin is not the only regional leader who should be pressured by the West to change his ways. "We should increase our pressure on the dictatorship in Belarus," he said. "It's there, in Belarus, that some of the methods which Mr. Putin is now applying to Russia were first tested: the death squads, the trade with rogue nations, the banning of free media, the rule by secret services."
The forum came as a key Putin political ally -- Sergei Mironov, the chairman of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament -- was due to meet at the U.S. State Department with Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state.
State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told a briefing yesterday that he expected the two officials to discuss the broad view of U.S.-Russian relations. He said that may include the Khodorkovsii case. The U.S. government's reaction to the case has been far more cautious and diplomatic than that of the experts at the forum.
Ereli yesterday reiterated concerns that the case raises questions about the rule of law in Russia. "This is an important case that we as well as investors and markets are watching and it's important that the rule of law be respected," he said.
Despite tensions over the Iraq war, U.S.-Russian relations have grown close on counterterrorism since the September 2001 attacks on America. While ties between Washington and traditional allies in Europe have been strained, Bush and Putin have had several lengthy summits, the latest at Bush's presidential retreat at Camp David in September.
Angela Stent is a professor at Washington's Georgetown University. She said a policy of shunning or seeking to isolate Putin is unlikely to ever happen in Bush's Washington. "Leverage goes both ways," she said. "You're right that the West has some leverage over President Putin. But as long as we feel that we need him in the war on terror, he has leverage over us."