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Vladimir Putin: Russia's Last Tsar?

  • Ivar Amundsen

Vladimir Putin has very good reasons to evade judicial scrutiny and stay in office.

Vladimir Putin has very good reasons to evade judicial scrutiny and stay in office.

At a conference last week in Moscow of the Kremlin-backed United Russia party, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin proposed current President Dmitry Medvedev to head the party list for the Duma (parliament) elections in December.

Medvedev generously responded by proposing Putin as United Russia's candidate for the Russian presidential election in March 2012.

The cat was finally out of the bag: the outcome is clear, and so the presidential election is effectively already over.

This should come as no surprise. The elites in the Kremlin and Lubyanka --the head office of the Federal Security Service (FSB) secret police -- have one overriding political goal: to keep control for themselves. Their leaders, first and foremost Putin as their effective boss for the past 12 years, have an urgent need to secure amnesty for their crimes -- and this is precisely why Putin has to come back to presidential office for the next 12 years.

In Russia, politicians enjoy de facto immunity for crimes committed while in office. Theoretically, however, indictments can be brought after they leave office. The only person who cannot be dismissed and therefore cannot be indicted is the president -- so if you have reasons to avoid trouble, this is the position you want to hang on to.

Vladimir Putin has a lot to answer for, and very good reasons for wanting not to do so. He is directly responsible for the second Russian war in Chechnya, in which an estimated 100,000 people have been killed. This is a crime against humanity, and arguably genocide.

Everybody knows of the colossal level of corruption in Russia, in particular among the political leadership. A few years ago, political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky made sensational allegations in the German newspaper "Die Welt" that Putin owns stakes of 4.5 percent in Gazprom, 37 percent in Surgutneftegaz - both energy corporations --- and 50 percent in Gunvor, an oil-trading company based in Zug in Switzerland and run by his close associate, Gennady Timchenko. At the time, the total value of those investments was estimated at $40 billion. Recent estimates are 50 percent higher, possibly making Putin the richest person in the world.

In other words, Putin has very good reasons to evade judicial scrutiny. He will calculate that after two back-to-back six-year terms of presidential office, everybody will have forgotten, or lost interest in his crimes -- or be sufficiently well paid-off to remain silent. He then envisages pulling out of the political limelight at the age of 71, after having ruled the largest country in the world as a dictator for almost a quarter of a century. Comparisons with Stalin and Brezhnev are very much justified.

From Unknown To President

In summer 1999, then-President Boris Yeltsin, severely affected by ill health and immoderate consumption of vodka, was nearing the end of his second term, and his successor had to be found. After several changes of prime minister, FSB Director Vladimir Putin was finally appointed to that post in August. Introducing him, Yeltsin declared that he "will succeed me as president" and that "Putin will solve the Chechen problem for good." To the latter comment, Putin replied, "Yes, and we will do just that, even if we have to wipe them out in the latrine." An extraordinary statement from the newly appointed prime minister of a world power.

Are President Dmitry Medvedev (left) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin engaged in political theater?

Are President Dmitry Medvedev (left) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin engaged in political theater?

Across several nights in September 1999, bomb explosions ripped through blocks of flats in Moscow and other cities, killing 294 innocent civilian Russians. Putin was quick to blame Chechen separatists, and he mobilized for an all-out military campaign against Russia's small Caucasian neighbor.

There are, however, abundant reports that the bombings were perpetrated by the FSB itself in a cynical operation to manufacture a pretext for a new Russian war against Chechnya, the purpose of which was to secure the presidency for the then totally unknown Putin in the Russian spring election of 2000. Sergei Yushenkov, Yury Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, and Aleksandr Litvinenko were among those who wrote about the FSB involvement in that operation -- and they were all murdered.

Putin's predecessor as Russian prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, has disclosed that the second war on Chechnya had actually been planned by the FSB as early as March 1999 -- when Putin was still FSB director.

Russia duly launched a new war against Chechnya; Yeltsin resigned on New Year's Eve, 1999; Putin became acting president, and sufficiently well known to be propelled to the presidency a few months later. It should be added, however, that several news organizations, including "The Times" of London, have revealing documentary evidence of massive election rigging in Putin's favor.

Back To The Bad Old Days

The FSB had got their man in place at last. The past 11 years -- the Putin years -- have been a time of leadership that in many ways resembles the style of the Soviet Union. Democratic institutions have been systematically undermined, censorship of the press redoubled, and political opposition eliminated. Dissidents, rights campaigners and journalists have been harassed or killed, and a notoriously unreliable judiciary fostered that has allowed corruption to flourish. Add to this a suffocating bureaucracy, outdated technology, and ineffective industry. Putin has claimed that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. He is now orchestrating a repeat performance in today's Russia.

Despite this, Russia has benefitted from high energy prices and is the world's biggest oil and gas producer. This has allowed the national debt to be paid back, but little money has been channeled into new infrastructure, or encouragement and research for sustainable and modern industry. Crude oil and gas account for 75 percent of Russia's exports, an export policy about as sophisticated and diversified as that of Saudi Arabia. Riches are reserved for the very few -- and of course Moscow has the highest number of dollar billionaires in the world.

In contrast, most Russians* lives in rural areas and towns with a population of less than 100,000 people, where hardship is commonplace. Four hundred towns are so-called one-industry towns and very exposed to economic disaster, and 25 million people (of a total 140 million) live below the poverty line.

Russia has brilliant politicians, intellectuals, academics, scientists, researchers, writers, and artists. However, their true potential is simply not realized under the current authoritarian rule, often rightly referred to as a police, mafia, or gangster state.

There are several myths about Russia that need addressing. First, the West has hung on to the illusion that Medvedev is a more gentle and amiable fellow than Putin. The fact is that Medvedev is no worse or better, weaker or stronger than Putin. He is Putin's little puppet, put in a certain chair to keep it warm for the boss's return -- that is all. Any sign of difference is theater for a purpose, and they are both good actors.

Moscow has the highest number of dollar billionaires in the world.

Moscow has the highest number of dollar billionaires in the world.

Secondly, everybody seems to take it for granted that Putin and Medvedev will swap jobs. I do not think so. True, the two are comrades-in-arms and know and trust each other from their years in St. Petersburg together. However, I believe Putin will look for change, and Medvedev has outlived his purpose. The dramatic standoff between Medvedev and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin on live television in Washington on September 27 led to the latter's immediate firing, and the possibility of a challenge for the job of prime minister next year. Other potential candidates are Sergei Naryshkin, head of the presidential administration and Sergei Sobyanin, until recently Putin's chief of staff and currently mayor of Moscow.

Is Putin What Russians Want?

Thirdly, "everybody" seems to accept that Putin and his "macho" style are popular with the Russians. But that ignores the question of how we could possibly know that to be true.

Putin controls every aspect of Russian society, including the media and polling institutions. He is also a master at pitting other institutions against each other. The Duma is completely in the hands of the Kremlin, and its foremost duty is to endorse its policies. All the serious political parties have been either banned or effectively sidelined. Opposition politicians like Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Milov, Mikhail Kasyanov, Garry Kasparov, and Vladimir Ryzhkov have little opportunity to make their voices heard, and even less to influence policy. Putin operates a political monopoly that provides no yardstick for measuring genuine popularity. And if someone asks you if you like Putin, and you know that giving the wrong answer could have serious personal or economic consequences, your answer tends to be dictated by your own immediate interests.

Ramzan Kadyrov, whom Putin appointed his henchman in the oppressed republic of Chechnya, is completely subservient to Putin, calling him Chechnya's savior. United Russia and the pro-Kremlin A Just Russia gained an astonishing 99 percent of the vote in the Chechen parliamentary elections in 2008, a result that is difficult to reconcile with Chechens' hatred of Kadyrov personally and of the Russian regime that has killed a quarter of Chechnya's population over the past 20 years.

My conclusion is that we shall never know just how popular (or unpopular) Putin really is unless/until he allows the Russians to choose between himself and diverse other candidates on fair, equal, and democratic terms. But Putin himself will not allow that gamble to take place.

In the United States, the president can govern for two terms, then his presidency is over and he can never come back. In Russia, the president must step down after two terms -- but he can come back after an interval. With some clever scheming, a powerful man can technically secure his political supremacy forever, and this is what is happening now. The presidential term in Russia has recently been extended from four to six years, so once reelected, Putin is looking at another 12 years as Russia's undisputed leader.

However, all power corrupts, and eventually time and circumstance overcome even the most powerful. We had the illusion in the West that the Soviet Union was irreversible, yet 20 years ago it collapsed like a deck of cards over a relatively short period -- a true political miracle.

This year we have been encouraged by the fall of corrupt and oppressive dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. There may be more to come in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria. Robert Mugabe will meet his maker, and Burma may loosen up. Even China may have to adapt to the demands of its vast population for human rights and freedom of expression. The world simply has become too transparent -- the era of old-fashioned dictatorships is over.

The world should treat Putin's ambition with caution and suspicion. However, I do not believe for a moment that he will complete another 12 years as Russia's president. Failing policies and an economic downturn, coupled with the people's growing confidence and just demands for democracy and a decent standard of living, will catch up with him and depose him from the throne.

Sooner or later, the Arab Spring will come to Russia, and I wish the great Russian people the best of luck in their struggle for a better future.

* CORRECTION: This article has been amended to correct the portion of Russians who live in rural areas or in cities with fewer than 100,000 people.

Ivar Amundsen is director of the Chechnya Peace Forum. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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