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Commentary

Vladimir Putin: Russia's Last Tsar?

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.
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By Ivar Amundsen
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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by: Maria from: Cambridge
October 09, 2011 13:20
"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."

Thanks but we have lived through too much shit in the past to be happy to leave our future to 'luck'. Don't wish Russia revolution and violence. No more.

by: Kavkazets
October 09, 2011 13:34
Last? Seriously? What fate did you prepare for Russia? Some Nazi like Rogozin will come to power and puts all non-Russians into prison and declare "Russia for Russians". Then the whole world will strike and divide the natural resources evenly between China, Europe, and the Middle East. Screaming "Russia kaput". Circa Germany 1945.

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
October 09, 2011 13:54
Very righteous, western point of view. If the Russian people support Putin, why should we question their judgment? Russia is, after all, their country.

The author suggests that to be effective, political change must come from within, from the ground up. However, not too far below the surface, a virulent strain of Russian nationalism is breeding. I suspect that there are far worse leaders than Putin waiting in the gutters near the Kremlin.
In Response

by: Dagestan
October 09, 2011 16:45
Ivan,
russians support putin, non-russians support russians-get-the-hell-out-of the Caucasus, Koeninsberg, Karelia, Siberia and other non-russian territories the barbarians such as you occupy.
In Response

by: Marco from: London United Kingdom
October 10, 2011 11:24

"non-russians support russians-get-the-hell-out-of the Caucasus, Koeninsberg, Karelia, Siberia .."

Really, you mean "non-Russians" want to be part of an Arab-desert-culture Caliphate? Siberia? Are you Pakistani by any chance?
In Response

by: Dagestan
October 10, 2011 13:26
" "non-Russians" want to be part of an Arab-desert-culture Caliphate? Siberia? Are you Pakistani by any chance?"
Well if you call Germans who were occupied in Koeninsberg now known as Kaliningrad, or Finns who were occupied by Russians in Karelia, or Chechens/Dagestani peoples who were occupied in the Caucasus, or Japaneese who were occupied on the island of Sakhalin, or Chineese who were occupied in Manjuria, or Chukotka people, or many others as Arabs fine by me russak.
In Response

by: Sey from: World
October 09, 2011 18:45
Yeah, but the difference is that while Putin means "stronger/at-least-stable Russia", an idea the West doesn't like, neo-nazi ultranationalists mean "weak, poor, violent, unstable, chaotic Russia", an idea which the West loves.

We can see hypocrisy here. West promotes "democracy and freedom", of course, as long as the democratically elected leader pledges alliance to them, otherwise he's a "dicator/tsar/danger to the free world."

Russians decide the future of Russia, not Westerners. If they want Putin back, he'll be back as many times as they want. After all, who is Putin? I mean, he's just another politician who works for the benefit of his oligarch buddies, if along the ways something good comes for Russians, very good...and if it doesn't, it's nice as well.
In Response

by: Scott from: Chicago
October 11, 2011 18:20
Ray, you are missing the fact that this is not, per se, the will of the Russian people. Without a free press and free elections, only one man's opinion matters - Putin's. So the article shouldn't be called "Vladimir Putin: Russia's Last Tsar?" but rather "Vladimir Putin: Russia's Tsar" (period).

by: Uzbek from: Bern
October 09, 2011 15:30
Putin is popular among Russians for his merits in stopping unjust enrichment and exploitation of Russians. He also brought security, safety and order to the country. Russia has not been as good for its citizens as it has become under Putin's leadership. Some Western countries however would prefer some drunkard like Eltsyn to give away natural resources for a bottle of vodka. Not anymore.

by: Ben
October 09, 2011 17:17
Maria, you dislike Russians so much as to wish "Arab spring" with muslim brotherhood for them.I`m sure there will be "muslim spring" in Britain before Russia.

by: Matthew from: Texas
October 09, 2011 18:55
The title to this article should be "Latest Tsar." Power in Russia is vested in an individual, not an office, and barring some actual revolution from the streets (all revolutions in Russia come form the top down) will continue to remain so.

by: Tangier Soto from: Geramny
October 09, 2011 19:50
Thank you for the article. It’s just true, what you’ve written. It’s time to dethrone the mythos, concerning Russia. As I can judge from abroad, there is a moto “Russians choose Putin” here. This is a very complicated question when the nation has not any other candidates, no political debates, any opposition (the presented oppositional parties are very week and are not seeing serious to compete).

You ask a question what if he really allows the nation to choose freely. Times have changed, and Russians are able to choose, and Putin, probably has grounds not to allow. Illusion of elections, illusion of democracy, risks of loss of confidence, indifference of people against politics, - that’s all we can observe in Russia today.
But all the attempts to persuade the nation and international observers in correctness of such decision for Russia turn only into a proclamation of inevitability. And that’s the worst.

by: R. B. from: USA
October 10, 2011 00:01
Lots of Russian and Putin bashing but not one citation of evidence that proves any of the author's claims. Example: " ...making Putin is the richest man in the world." Where's the proof for this claim? The whole article smacks of a long held anti-communism, as if the Soviet Union never collapsed. It's true that Russia is an authoritarian state but it is no longer communist. Diatribes aside, Putin what the west dislikes is a much better leader than the drunken Yeltsin who the west idealized.

by: vlad from: us - moldova
October 10, 2011 02:15
I think very correct description. If to watch state media everybody is happy in Russia. If to browse Russian internet many people in Russia are unhappy and fed up. Those few I talk to in Russia are not happy. Some kind of accept Putin as the least of the evils. Many think about immigrating, few are already leaving Russia.

The unrest in Russia might start with fights between ethnic groups. Looks like ethnic street fights are common already now. It could move into pogroms, then fight with police, army.
In Response

by: Ghost from: USA
October 10, 2011 13:31
no no no not only russia in the usa, uk, turkey, saudi arabia, germany, syria, norway, france, belgium, netherlands, everywhere where Caucasus refugees present simple russians are going to be targeted. Most of the russian victims probably will have nothing to do with putin, but the steam must be let out.

by: Djole from: Belgrade
October 10, 2011 05:58
My,my so many negative comments about Putin in western media,that means that Putin is a right choice for Russia.Besides it doesnt mather what west thinks about Putin but what Russians do, and they love the guy.And by the way before western media talks about revolution in Russia they schould look whats happening in their own backyard like wall street and all acros the west.
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