Prague, 12 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Symbols are very important for Vladimir Putin and none are more emblematic than the national anthem -- the old Soviet anthem dressed up in modern words. This reflects what he sees as state-building: laying claim to the past and all that means but doing so in terms that express what Putin believes Russia should be today.
The Russian political tradition -- and it matters little whether you go back just as far as Lenin or step beyond -- offers little encouragement to supporters of participatory democracy. The Russian tradition is of statism writ large. Many hold that Putin is merely following a well-trodden path.
Among them an increasingly forlorn opposition, which believes the system of government in Russia today has precious little to do with democracy.
Aleksandr Malashenko of the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow wouldn't go that far but he shares the view that Putin's heavily centralized government risks choking democracy in Russia at birth. He argues that "the only way for them to keep themselves as rulers is centralization and the construction of the so-called vertical of power but, at the same time, it is impossible to start real reforms under the slogan of centralization. And this, in my opinion, is the main conflict between the system of power of today and the needs of society."
What has happened to set the democratic alarm bells ringing? Critics note the continuing diminution of the powers of regional and local authorities, following last year's decision to replace the election of regional governors with Kremlin-approved appointments.
An attempt by the once-powerful Yaroslavl regional legislature in October to buck the trend by challenging the president's right to appoint regional leaders ended in humiliating retreat. A warning from Moscow was enough to make the regional deputies see the folly of their ways.
And it doesn't stop there. A law passed this year on the election of deputies to the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, puts an end to the direct election of deputies in single-mandate districts, leaving voters to select party lists instead. Parties now have to win at least seven percent of the vote to make it into the State Duma. It has also become almost impossible to hold a referendum in Russia unless it has the state's support.
For all her doubts about Putin, the independent journalist and author Masha Gessen rejects the idea that the Russia president is working to some sort of ideological blueprint. "I don't think he has a strategy,” she says. “I think it is force of habit and I think that, at this point, it's self-perpetuating because I think he and his people have done enough that if they ever give up power they risk going to jail."
So, if no master plan, what? Gessen believes that Putin and many of those he keeps in his personal entourage are acting on instincts honed during their formative years together in the Soviet Union. "These are people who feel comfortable in a closed system,” she contends. “They will do anything to make contemporary Russia resemble the system to which they are accustomed, which is the Soviet Union and, more specifically, the KGB, so space in all respects will keep getting smaller. They are not comfortable with anything they don't control."
Gessen points to the state’s domination of public television in 2005, the continuing erosion of independent television, and the pressure on the print media to toe the official line as evidence of what she believes is a full-scale retreat from democracy.
According to this scenario, the bill now working its way through parliament on nongovernmental organizations is part of the same picture: a government obsessed by control and determined to establish a rigid chain of command or what Putin himself calls reestablishing the "vertical of power.”
Aleksandr Petrov of Helsinki Rights Watch in Moscow is another who has watched the galloping re-centralization of Russia with alarm -- not so much because he thinks the country is sliding back into the past but more because he fears Russia's marginalization on the world stage. "Any kind of centralization, whether it be the full subordination of parliament [to the president] or the subordination of the mass media, and especially television, or the process that has just begun to marginalize nongovernmental organizations will represent to some degree a step back,” he says. “I don't want to suggest that Russia will soon be transformed into the Soviet Union but in the long term Russia risks losing its place in the world arena -- and forever."
Whatever the case, it is clear that there is little now to stop Putin from pressing ahead with further centralization except, perhaps, his own better judgment. Civil society in Russia is still in its infancy, the political opposition is enfeebled, and most Russians appear quiescent in the face of Putin's transformations. The temptation for him will be to consolidate his power still further -- to rigidify that "vertical of power" -- especially as the challenge of parliamentary elections lies not far ahead, in 2007. But at what cost for Russia?