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Russia: The Milosevic Mold

By Nenad Pejic (epa) At the end of September, Russian state television broadcast a half-hour "special report" that charged foreign intelligence services, particularly the CIA, as using Russian nongovernmental organizations to foment dissent. The broadcast was eerily reminiscent of similar "special reports" that appeared on Serbian state television during the rule of Slobodan Milosevic. And the purpose of the broadcast was the same -- to mobilize a frightened society against shadowy external "enemies."

Such crass propaganda is just one of many similarities between the authoritarian regimes of Milosevic and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Both leaders began their rule by establishing iron control over the media, while carefully leaving the small B92 radio station in Belgrade and Russia's Ekho Moskvy in order to create an illusion of media freedom. But for the majority, freedom of the press was reduced to freedom to praise the leader.

Milosevic secured his position by sidelining his predecessor, Ivan Stambolic, who was later killed by a professional assassin, possibly at Milosevic's behest. Likewise, Putin has turned his sights on many of those who contributed to his rise to power, particularly former oligarch Boris Berezovsky, whom he hounded out of the country and stripped of his lucrative business interests in Russia.

Both Milosevic and Putin used the crushing of separatist movements -- in Kosovo and Chechnya -- to boost their popularity. But while Kosovo now seems on the verge of gaining independence thanks to strong international support, a brutal strongman and a mafia-type regime have been installed in Chechnya to keep a lid on the simmering conflict there.

The two leaders also displayed a profound understanding of the techniques of staying in power by manipulating both their supporters and their opponents. In Milosevic's Serbia, the Yugoslav Union of Leftists (headed by Milosevic's wife) was created to siphon off support from the left, while the Serbian Radical Party was set up to take votes from the right.

Putin has followed the same pattern -- stamping out real opposition parties and creating controlled front organizations to weaken the Communist Party and the liberal-democratic opposition. A Just Russia, Civic Force, and Great Russia were all created by the Kremlin to confuse voters from, respectively, the left, center, and right of the political spectrum. All these parties in both countries benefited from the state's control of the media, especially television.

At the recent parliamentary elections in Russia, Putin's supporters managed to achieve a 104 percent turnout in Mordovia. By coincidence or not, Milosevic's supporters were equally enthusiastic -- they managed to reach exactly the same figure in one Serbian municipality.

Strong Nationalism, Weak Institutions

Neither Milosevic nor Putin espoused a particular ideology beyond a vague sort of statist nationalism. Milosevic was the leader of the Serbs, not of Serbia. By the same token, Putin acts as the leader of the Russians, rather than as the head of the multiethnic Russian Federation. Under both leaders, nationalism grew steadily, often with ugly manifestations.

Nor did either leader do much to build the complex institutions needed for a modern state. In both states, to take just the most glaring example, the legislature was completely marginalized and subordinated to the executive branch -- that is, to Milosevic and Putin personally.

As a result of years of stage-managed elections and rubber stamping, Russians have come to rate parliament as the least-powerful political institution in the country, according to a recent Levada Center poll. Another poll by the same research agency found that more than one-third of Russians believe Russia does not need a legislature at all.

Power has been personalized under Putin just as it was under Milosevic, and the structure described in both countries' constitutions was de facto replaced by a hidden power structure centered on the two leaders. When Milosevic switched positions, power stayed with him; Putin too is set to retain real power even after his second presidential term ends next year. He has just been asked to take the prime minister's position.

Other domestic similarities between Milosevic and Putin include the manipulation of youth groups, the promotion of Orthodox Christianity as part of their nationalist vision, co-opting a loyal group of rich businesspeople to press the state's political goals by "commercial" means, and even, in some cases, resorting to criminal means, including murder, to achieve political ends.

Divisive Figures

They are also both belligerent and divisive figures on the international stage. Milosevic was skilled at exploiting divisions within the European Union and manipulating unpopular aspects of U.S. foreign policy for his own ends. Putin has followed this example perfectly.

The prime-time "special report" aired in September asserted that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was nothing but a bid to steal that country's oil, adding that now Washington has set itself the goal of dismembering Russia and taking control of its natural resources. Russian Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev similarly told a mass-market weekly two months ago that the United States and Great Britain are waging a concerted campaign to weaken Russia, using the security services of Poland, Georgia, and the Baltic states.

History offers few examples of authoritarian rulers who have voluntarily transformed their countries into democracies, although many have claimed to be doing so. A regime that bases its support on the fear of external enemies and their purported domestic agents inevitably comes to rely on the security services, the army, and the police. Democratic institutions and all manifestations of pluralism wither and disappear.

And history further shows that releasing the genie of nationalism is far easier than putting it back in the bottle. The legacies of Milosevic's nationalistic campaigns are still being felt in the Balkans. Last week, more than a million people in Serbia signed a request to have live television coverage of the trial of Vojislav Seselj, a Serbian radical nationalist, at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. It is daunting to think what the ultimate consequences of Putin's Great Russianism might be. Russian commentator Aleksei Pankin predicted recently that Putin's legacy of stability and authoritarianism will last for five or 10 years. "After that, the Russian people will probably grow tired of stability once again and will try -- as they did in 1917 and 1992 -- to build paradise on Earth."

RFE/RL Russia Report

RFE/RL Russia Report

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