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Western Press Review: Putin Versus The Oligarchs.

  • Don Hill

Prague, 6 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Muscle flexing by the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin attracts attention and commentary today from the Western press on both sides of the Atlantic.

JANE'S INTELLIGENCE DIGEST:

"Jane's Intelligence Digest" says in its 7 November issue available today that there are indications of pressure on Putin from the right to dilute the power of the post-Soviet Russian tycoons. The report says: "The current power struggle taking place in Russia is merely the latest phase in a strategy that aims to combat the country's democratic opposition and ensure that there is no domestic challenge to the president and his inner circle."

"Jane's" says: "Experienced Kremlin-watchers are warning that a pattern is emerging which points to a serious internal power struggle within the Russian leadership [and that] a powerful group of ex-KGB hard-liners is putting pressure on Putin to neutralize the growing political influence of Russia's oligarchs whose principal offence has been to provide financial backing for free-market orientated opposition parties."

The report cites specifically government legal moves against oil oligarchs Mikhail Khodorkovskii of Yukos and Roman Abramovich and others at Sibneft. It says: "These maneuvers, which are intended to undermine Russia's anti-Putin political parties ahead of next year's presidential elections, follow a series of largely successful moves to neutralize the country's independent media."

The report says: "This power struggle can also be viewed within the context of Putin's wider geopolitical agenda. Having rebuilt and re-energized much of the former Soviet security apparatus -- particularly Russian espionage networks abroad -- the Kremlin hard-liners are keen to reconstruct much of the country's lost and declining influence within the CIS and other former Soviet satellite states."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE:

The "International Herald Tribune" publishes today a commentary by political and world affairs columnist William Safire of "The New York Times." Safire says, flatly, "Russia today is ruled by President Vladimir Putin's siloviki, former KGB men and military officers who have the nation by the throat. That power-hungry mafia -- the Russian word is rooted in 'power' -- brooks no opposition from either the small band of democratic reformers or the political leftovers from the Yeltsin regime."

Safire continues: "Only one power center posed a threat to the siloviki's domination of Russian life. This was the group of oligarchs, who became the super-rich by ripping off the old Soviet Union's natural resources when communism collapsed. The KGB's Putin came to power by making a deal: 'We of the siloviki run the country, and you oligarchs can keep your ill-gotten gains -- provided you cut us in on some of the money and stay out of politics.' "

The commentator writes: "Not all the new billionaires went along with the new corruption. Boris Berezovsky, manipulator of Yeltsin, had delusions of staying on as the man behind the throne, while Vladimir Gusinsky had hopes of creating a free, national media network not beholden to the Kremlin bosses. Putin confiscated all he could of the wealth of both men, who would not do his bidding, and chased them out of Russia."

He says: "But along came smooth, likable Mikhail Khodorkovsky, oiliest of oilmen. This youthful robber baron, after amassing his $8 billion, became an exemplar of economic transparency -- openly declaring corporate income and paying taxes, accessible to interviewers -- thereby beguiling foreign investors, who wanted to believe that free enterprise and the rule of law had come at last to Russia."

Safire writes: "With parliamentary elections coming up next month and his presidential re-coronation scheduled for March, Putin could afford no media editorial backsliding -- or the infusion of money to his opposition to purchase time or space. He ordered the arrest, trial, conviction and jailing of Khodorkovsky and the seizure of his billions in stock."

LOS ANGELES TIMES:

Fiona Hill is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a co-author of "The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russian Out in the Cold." She writes in a commentary in today's "Los Angeles Times" that the siloviki-versus-free-enterprise war seems to some like a morality play of Evil against Good.

The audience consensus was that Evil won -- that Putin was turned to the dark side by KGB siloviki who wanted to quash democratic forces on the eve of Russia's December parliamentary elections and again exert state control over the economy. His chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin, quit in protest. In a second act this week, Khodorkovskii resigned as head of Yukos.

He goes on: "From Putin's perspective, though, things were never so black or white. No one won. He did what he had to do to rein in a wayward oligarch."

The writer says: "Khodorkovsky stole Yukos from the state in the free-for-all of Russian privatization in the 1990s. But, from Putin's point of view, he had all the right qualifications to run it. Although ruthless and self-interested, he was well connected to Kremlin operatives from his days as a young Communist activist."

She writes: "His personal success even made Russia look good. It was seen as a country where vast fortunes could be made. For a while, he was the model of the good oligarch."

Hill writes: "Unfortunately, Khodorkovsky lost sight of Putin's [boundaries]. He seemed to have forgotten that he had seized Yukos by nefarious means and managed it at the state's pleasure. He referred to Yukos as his asset to use as he pleased."

She says: "Now Putin has a dilemma. He does not want to change course, but he backed the wrong horse with Khodorkovsky."

Hill writes: "Putin's forceful intervention has created a political martyr and upheaval in the economy. He can counter Khodorkovsky's political appeal, and the economic upheaval will probably subside, but, unfortunately, Russia doesn't boast a large stable of capable oligarchs. Putin does not have many others he can trust to manage the family jewels."

THE WASHINGTON POST:

Foreign affairs columnist Jim Hoagland writes in a similar vein in "The Washington Post": "Vladimir Putin is cashing in the chips he has amassed this year while presiding over a resurgent Russian economy, performing a delicate balancing act on the U.S. war in Iraq and promising new Russian flexibility in the Middle East. Now all that Putin asks is for his countrymen and fellow world leaders to shut up while he pursues a brutal war without end in Chechnya and systematically shrinks political and press freedoms in Russia."

Hoagland writes: "Putin's pay-up strategy shows short-term success. He is received with warmth in foreign capitals and confronts a marginalized opposition at home. Part of this is personal: Dealing with a president who knows where he is going is a relief for many Russians and for Putin's peers in the global leadership club, who held their breath and racked their brains when it came to handling an often inebriated Boris Yeltsin."

The commentary concludes: "When Tony Blair staged the first lavish Western welcome for Putin in April 2000, the British prime minister told aides that the new Russian leader was a blank sheet of paper who had to be engaged and influenced. But a lifetime of service in the Soviet bureaucracy evidently left marks on the man from Saint Petersburg that are becoming more visible all the time. Putin emerges as an ambitious, ruthless and skilled operative for whom the only question, and value, is control."

THE DAILY TELEGRAPH:

Two British newspapers publish first-person commentaries today by recent Russian exiles who have felt the heavy hand of Russian authorities.

Boris Berezovskii was a prominent Russian industrialist until 2000, when the Putin government seized many of his assets. England has granted him political asylum. In "The Daily Telegraph," he predicts that Putin will be driven from power. Berezovskii writes: "I write from my home in London, free to speak my mind and be with my family thanks to the independence and fairness of British democratic society. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of Russia's leading businessmen, is in a Moscow jail 12 days after his arrest in Siberia. With no end in sight, he is not so fortunate."

Berezovskii says: "Today, President Putin will join European leaders at the EU-Russia Summit in Rome where they will confront global challenges that call for collective commitment and unity of purpose on Iraq, NATO and anti-terrorism. But the fact is that the West needs to pay equal attention to Mr. Putin's attacks on democratic institutions in Russia as it does to the fight for global security."

He writes: "I believe that Mr. Putin will not be re-elected president of the Russian people in March 2004 because his attempts to construct an undemocratic, centralized political system that is organized and ruled by the state rather than citizens, are doomed to failure."

He continues: "Mr. Putin's autocratic intentions have been all too obvious since the spring of 2000, the start of his creeping anti-constitutional coup d'etat. Since then he has been trying to take total control of the Russian state's three key power centers."

He concludes: "I am happy living in England and am grateful for every day I have here, but I love my mother country, and look forward to returning home soon. We know well that only we Russians can tame Putin. However, world leaders must have the courage to speak the truth about what is going wrong in Russia, giving voice and hope to the millions of Russians who now can only remain silent in the face of the state's repression."

FINANCIAL TIMES:

Vladimir Gusinksii, a media magnate whose empire included NTV and Media-MOST, writes in the "Financial Times" of what he says is a fearful Russia. Gusinksii writes: "I was born and grew up in the Soviet Union and I know fear well."

He writes: "Russia is full of fear. Businessmen, politicians -- all those who stick their heads above the parapet -- are afraid of Vladimir Putin. Everybody understands that after a show trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, heads will roll. Confiscation of property in favor of the state and Mr. Putin's entourage will follow. The president clearly relishes the fear that he inspires. The greater the fear, the stronger his power."

Gusinskii continues: "But Mr. Putin is also afraid. He is afraid that people will remember him for the bloodbath in Chechnya, the elimination of the free media, the Inquisition-like use of the FSB security police and the general prosecutors, and for trampling on the constitution. The stronger his fear, the greater the temptation to become a lifelong dictator or to cultivate a successor who will continue to rule with an iron hand."

The writer says: "If the Russian elite does not overcome its fear, Mr. Putin will tighten the screws. The regime will be entrenched for years, even if someone else is in charge. The sooner someone challenges Mr. Putin, the less likely it is that Russia will slide back towards its past."

He concludes: "If they do not find someone with enough courage in their own ranks, they should propose Mr. Khodorkovsky. He has already shown he is not afraid of Mr. Putin and has challenged him directly. This is why he poses such a danger to the president. This is precisely why he is in jail today. Yet, in truth, he is a freer man than most of those who are still at liberty."

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:

"The Wall Street Journal Europe" publishes a commentary by "Washington Post" writer Anne Applebaum, who argues that Khodorkovskii may not be a viable political opponent for Putin.

She writes: "The sudden interest in Russia on the [U.S.] op-ed pages also reveals a good deal about what moves us nowadays when we read the newspapers. The murders of journalists, the arrests of ecologists -- these kinds of stories have become too mundane to interest the jaded American public, particularly the small slice of it that cares about foreign policy. Horrific rapes and murders in Chechnya -- those are an 'internal' Russian matter' and not of much political significance. The arrest of a billionaire, on the other hand -- a person who hobnobbed with Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney -- that's really interesting. Never mind that this particular billionaire, admirable though his philanthropy has lately become, made his first millions by defrauding the Russian state.

"Odder, perhaps, is the way our reaction appears to have marked Mr. Khodorkovsky himself. Speaking from jail a few days ago, Russia's richest man announced his intention to resign from his company and 'dedicate all my energy to my country -- Russia, in whose great future I firmly believe.' He also hinted through a spokesman that he is considering running for president. Although Mr. Khodorkovsky's wealth does make him a plausible rival to Putin, there is no evidence whatsoever that he enjoys any popular support, or that he has, until very recently, been terribly interested in the great future of Russia at all.

"Who could have made him think that he has a future as a democratic politician -- or that it would even be a good idea to drop hints to that effect? We in the West have made him a hero. Now we'll see how far that takes him at home."

THE BOSTON GLOBE:

"Boston Globe" journalist David Filipov contends that Putin may not be as powerful in Russia as he appears. Filipov writes: "The lack of strong, independent democratic institutions in Russia has left Putin with broad nominal authority, but in reality he is limited by his dependence on rival Kremlin clans perpetually struggling for influence."

Filipov writes: "Putin has consolidated his power while leading Russia on a pro-Western foreign policy and presiding over an economic upswing. Putin also has a 73-percent approval rating. But his power has its noticeable limits."

Filipov notes that a Kremlin clan around former President Boris Yeltsin raised Putin from anonymity to sudden eminence. The writer says: "But Putin brought with him members of another clan, former security officials who have yet to benefit from Russian privatization on such a large scale. This clan, known as the 'siloviki,' by all accounts initiated Khodorkovsky's arrest."

The writer concludes: "In letting the siloviki have their way, Putin has allowed the Russian system of checks and balances to come undone. This has led to his biggest crisis."

THE GUARDIAN:

Other commentaries today examine aspects of U.S.-British relations.

"The Guardian" says today in an editorial that U.S. President George W. Bush is likely to encounter widespread and open hostility when he visits Britain later this month, overshadowing the otherwise close ties between the two countries.

The editorial says: "[This long friendship should not] be forgotten when George Bush blows into town on 19 November for a three-day state visit. But there is a distinct danger that it might be. In his capacity as head of state and current leader of a great people, the president deserves the glad hand of friendship. But in his other, inescapable capacity as George Bush, the fountainhead of perhaps the most controversial, confrontational and divisive U.S. administration in living memory, one that is widely distrusted and feared abroad and at home, and one whose actions have caused great and painful dissension within our country, Mr. Bush is very far from being universally welcome.

"This ambivalence, shading into outright hostility, is most emphatically not the product of the anti-Americanism which, sadly, Mr. Bush's activities have done so much to engender across Western Europe and the Muslim world. It is the product of a strong, principled, essentially political objection to one man and his many narrow, dangerous policies; policies that are unworthy of the American people and which many indeed deplore.

"The British, who know America more intimately than most, instinctively expect better of America's tribunes. And they know, or at least hope, that Mr. Bush may soon be replaced by a more truly representative leader who better comprehends and upholds the ideals and aspirations that mark America's greatness."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE:

Philip H. Gordon is a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. The "International Herald Tribune" publishes today his commentary expressing wonder that British Prime Minister Tony Blair's consistent support of President Bush has won so little loyalty in return.

Under the headline, "Blair Could Use Some U.S. Loyalty," Gordon writes: "One might have thought that Prime Minister Tony Blair's pro-American foreign policy over the past year would have scored him some points in Washington. Blair risked his political life to support the U.S.-led war in Iraq. He has persistently and courageously faced down public opposition to his cooperation with the Bush administration and has fervently made the case that Britain and Europe need good relations with the United States. Even as members of his own party call him America's 'poodle,' and his popularity continues to fall, Blair remains firm both at home and in Europe in his conviction that Europe should stand with the United States.

"Later this month, Blair will even welcome President George W. Bush for a full-scale state visit, despite the huge anti-Bush protests the visit will certainly provoke.

"It was curious, then, that when Blair last month took a step toward patching up his strained but important relations with the leaders of Germany and France by agreeing to discuss their proposal to strengthen the European Union's defense arrangements, the response from Washington was explosive."
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