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Feifer Issues Putin Warning In 'The Moscow Times'

Writing for "The Moscow Times," RFE/RL Senior Correspondent Gregory Feifer says that observers around the world shouldn't allow themselves to think that another Putin presidency will bring any serious changes to the structure of power in Russia.

Read the article below or the original on "The Moscow Times" website.


Don't Fall For Putin's Talk

Gregory Feifer | The Moscow Times

October 19, 2011

The news that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will run for president next year may have finally quashed the dying hopes of the stalwart optimists who, despite all evidence to the contrary, hoped that President Dmitry Medvedev would restore Russian democracy. But it did not forestall the emergence of the newest fantasy about Russian politics: a revamped, more liberal “Putin 2.0.”

This twist fits an old pattern among Russia analysts and journalists, apparently driven by a need to say something new and different about an essentially unchanging reality. More than simply misguided, it is dangerous because it plays into the Kremlin’s strategy for misleading the world about its workings and motives.

Even before Putin stepped down at the end of his first presidential term limit in 2008, the likeliest scenario was that he would remain supreme leader after the meek, loyal Medvedev completed his first term. Nevertheless, many scholars, journalists and pundits in Russia and abroad have spent the past four years arguing the opposite by speculating about when Medvedev would actually assume the vast powers of the presidency.

But when Medvedev finally announced last month that he would step down, new speculation began — this time about the nature of Putin’s future rule — without a pause for reflection about why so many chose to ignore the overwhelming evidence that Medvedev was no more than a cog in the Putin regime.

Never mind that Medvedev never appointed a single important minister or even his own domestic and foreign policy advisers — they were all Putin’s men — during his presidential term. Never mind that his impossible-sounding exhortations to modernize Russia sharply contrasted with how far backward the authorities were actually driving the country by cultivating authoritarianism and corruption. Never mind that Putin’s personality cult regularly ballooned with every one of his bare-chested publicity stunts.

Now that there is no longer any dispute that Putin will almost certainly remain Russia’s indisputable autocrat for longer than any leader since Josef Stalin, some are earnestly asking whether he will return to the presidency as the “reformer” of his first term as president a dozen years ago. Putin encouraged such sentiment this week by reviving the myth that Russia could face ruin by turning away from its current course.

“They say that things can’t get any worse,” he said in a joint interview to the heads of the country’s top three government-controlled television channels, recorded Saturday and broadcast Monday evening. But it’s enough to take two or three incorrect steps. We lived through the collapse of the country. We lived through a very difficult period in the 1990s. Only in the 2000s did we begin to get to our feet.”

Of course, Putin was never a reformer — at least the democratizing kind the West pined for. At the very start of his tenure, he shut down the best of the country’s independent national television stations, cancelled direct elections for Federation Council members, jailed opponents and intimidated Russia’s business barons with tax investigations that were dropped as soon as they ensured loyalty.

What he did do with his growing power was to push through a small handful of economic reforms that had been stifled by the Communist opposition under former President Boris Yeltsin: a flat tax rate and land reform chief among them. That was enough to earn him the title of “reformer.” Otherwise, his crippling of the country’s judiciary and legislative institutions and directing the forced nationalization of the oil and other industries did far more to offset the benefits of any liberalizing policy. It was high energy prices that were chiefly responsible for resuscitating the country’s economy in the 2000s.

Enter Medvedev, whose promises to fight corruption four years ago did nothing to check its rise. The main lesson we should have learned from his presidency is that his liberal persona and promises of reform were really part of a ruse. Many fell for it, disregarding a central trope in the traditional political culture Putin has restored: politicians’ rhetoric and the facade of institutions are meant to obscure how Russia is really ruled.

Of course, journalists feel pressured to come up with fresh angles. Everyone is sick and tired of hearing about Russian authoritarianism, so the temptation to publish positive news for a change is understandable. But the desire to engage readers does not make wishes true. Nor does speculation about the Kremlin’s inner workings in the absence of real knowledge about them.

Wishful thinking about Russia also reflects a particular Western philosophical nature. With almost 40 percent of Russians now logging on to the Internet, surely they will understand the improvement in quality of life that democracy brings and stop supporting their autocrats, the conventional argument goes. But Russians are logging on to Facebook and Angry Birds, not The New York Times.

Let’s not kid ourselves about Russia. There is no evidence that Putin is a reformer, but there is a lot of proof that he is a power-hungry autocrat who is not about to change as long as high prices for oil and gas support his patronage system. Projecting our wishes based on the latest fantasy about Putin’s rule is just what he wants, and it does us all a disservice.

Gregory Feifer, a former Moscow correspondent for National Public Radio, is a senior correspondent for Radio Free Europe. He is writing a book about Russian behavior and society.
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Comment Sorting
by: sadsadrussian from: russia
October 20, 2011 08:40
As a Russian, I am truly ashamed that this pathetic little man, Putin, controls the entire country and that the Russian population just accepts it with no visible opposition. The latter is hardly surprising taken decades of "unnatural selection," when the best and the brightest were either physically eliminated or forced to leave. This brain drain does continue now indeed and there is no question that it will continue at a higher rate in the near future, until no progressive ambitious people are left at all. We are pretty close to this state of affairs and indeed the ruling criminal "elite" in Russia only benefits from this trend, as the author correctly points out.

The modern Russia is a sad, sad place. There is no manufacturing. The health care system and education are in terminal decline. Science has been completely destroyed. The basic infrastructure is falling apart. Civil liberties are nearly non-existent. Opposition has been painted into a corner. The corruption is everywhere, at every level. The population is declining and the life span is going down, in part due to wide-spread alcoholism, drug-use, AIDS, etc. The Russian language has deteriorated into various forms of unrecognizable slang. There is a massive dumbing-down of the entire population.

Putin presides over this unbelievable decline, pumping gas and oil from the ground, which has been the only activity he has ever cared about. He has no broad vision, nor desire to improve things in Russia, where his only goal is to hold on to power and retain status quo with those criminals around him. His modus operandi in international policy involves nothing but blackmailing Russia's neighbors over gas prices. His "international policy" with stronger countries seems to rely on a different kind of blackmail with threats involving nuclear technologies developed back in the old Soviet times. He boasts economic successes during his first time in office (formally so, as he obviously has been in control all along, having picked the weakest and the most pathetic "successor"), but these relative and temporary economic improvements after the anarchy of the 90s had nothing to do with Putin, as he was just riding the bubble of high energy prices and also was benefiting from the initial illusion of democratization of the Russian society. Now, only a complete lunatic will invest in Russia on the eve of and after these fake "elections" and in the current economic and political climate.

Another scary thing about Putin is that he appears to genuinely believe that he is a mighty leader and a savior of Russia. He clearly has completely lost touch with reality and his recent carefully selected photoshoots (exposing to the world his aging torso) and archeological discoveries show that he is simply delusional and is obsessed with his personality. To have such a delusional leader is a dangerous road we have been on before.

To me, Putin's rise to power is an inexplicable glitch of history that looks much like a recurrent nightmare. I pray that there arises a true leader among the grey crowd, who can finally put an end to this. But some help from the West would not hurt. What we need is an open and unequivocal denouncement of the abuse of power by Putin by all progressive Western leaders and such a denouncement should be backed up by real action, including economic sanctions perhaps and other methods (e.g., boycott of the Olympics in Sochi). It may hurt at first, but it will help the Russians recognize how wrong the things are and will help all in the long run.

by: John from: Australia
October 21, 2011 05:42
Again this kind of Russian-o-phobia is all rubbish. What Russia do in their region is their bussiness. Unlike the US they have not invaded half the planet and rightfully deserve to protect themselves from the likes of NATO and the US who are nothing but bullies. I personally have no negative opinion about the Russians other than the fact they are not flexing enough muscle around the EU region.
In Response

by: Travis from: US
October 23, 2011 18:01
What is wrong with you, do you know any history at all?
In Response

by: John from: Australia
October 26, 2011 13:35
Yes, I certainly know history enough to know that if it was not for Russia and its people stopping Hitler you would all be Nazi's today. However I can agree that Stalin's methods were evil towards his own forces and cannot see Putin in this way what so ever. Apart from making hollywood movies the Americans are looking down the barrel everyday and pretty soon the EU will be dismembered. Do all of you really think that disengaging with Russia will have any effect. Your kidding yourselves. As for the rest of your anti-russian commentry its laughable in so many aspects I won't waist my time. I can't wait for Putin's return. Long Live the Russian empire. And by the way I am not russian but I see the wests ignorance as futile towards the Russians as pathetic.
In Response

by: Laszlo from: Hungary
October 25, 2011 06:32
How soon we forget.
In Response

by: John from: Russia
October 25, 2011 13:58
What planet are you from?

by: Charles from: Moscow
October 22, 2011 10:11
Sorry, I can't write to an anti-Putin rally at Pushkinskaia square in MOscow that the Russian press won't carry!
In Response

by: Joe
October 26, 2011 19:43
Charles, you aren't going to be suppressed as well.

In Russia, your kind are in the minority, which explains why Russian media isn't obligated to cover every event like the one you mention.

by: James from: Toronto
October 26, 2011 12:55
Sadsadrussina from: Russia is very clear sighted. You're 100% right that world leaders at least the democratic ones should not engage with Putin. Reset should now end. This spiraling Russian corruption has infected the surrounding countries and the EU. It's time to stop this tyrant. Boycotting the Olympics would certainly be a good start. Let's stop being hypocrites.

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