Behind Russian Glass

The Strait Times of Singapore recently published a cartoon depicting a glass case containing a sickle, beneath it a Soviet-style hammer in classic “in case of emergency break glass” style. Eyeing both instruments in his usual emotionless yet annoyed manner is Vladimir Putin.

Such wit encapsulates the Russian president and his siloviki (his “wielders of power” in the military and intelligence services) brethren’s egregious power grabs. The latest such stunt, dissolving the government and sacking Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, illustrates the extent of Mr. Putin’s power and popularity. Despite or perhaps because of such brazen behavior less than a month before the general election, Mr. Putin enjoys an 80% domestic approval rating.

Much ink has been spilled on how Russia’s autocratic past has left it with an electorate instinctively attracted to such strongmen as Mr. Putin, ill prepared for genuine democracy. And then there is two time presidential candidate and chairman of the Russian Democratic Party (better known by its unofficial name, YABLOKO), Grigory Yavlinsky. Having come in third and fourth in his last two runs, Mr. Yavlinsky is more a moral conscience than a potential leader.

Speaking a week ago at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Mr. Yavlinsky, sporting a wry smirk, blithely suggested that Brezhnev or even Stalin might have been as popular as Mr. Putin, owing to the scarcity of credible alternative leaders. More recently, the chaos wrought by Boris Yeltsin’s inept handling of the transition to a free market, he argued, inspired an apathy in the electorate that is manifesting itself as a desire for decisive leadership and steady paychecks above and beyond all else.

In this tepid climate, Yavlinsky went on, the Duma has devolved into a rubberstamp assembly while Andropov’s disciples accumulate ever greater power. But thus far this slow regress to authoritarianism has yielded little beside an economic mirage; illusory growth indicators resulting from a devalued currency and unusually high oil and natural gas prices. Russia’s underdeveloped civil society, habitual dependence on central planning and need for hard currency have encouraged the development of resource-oriented exports, which in turn solidify an oligarchic nucleus.

And now these oligarchs — as distasteful as they may be nonetheless the last domestic check on the state’s power — are themselves under attack by Mr. Putin. Consider the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, head of the Russian petroleum company Yukos and a political ally of YABLOCKO. Mr. Khodorkovsky was arrested for fraud and tax evasion, charges of which he is almost certainly guilty, and for which he almost certainly would not have been arrested save for his criticisms of Mr. Putin.

The Kremlin’s projected budget surplus of $3.75 billion for 2004, a figure consistent with annual surpluses dating to 2001, is another cause for concern, considering Russia’s martial tendencies and abuses of good faith foreign assistance agreements. The Canadian newsmagazine The Walrus reports that a joint program funded by the G-8 states, totaling $20 billion, meant to dismantle rotting nuclear weaponry, has merely freed up funding for Russian rearmament. September of last year found then-PM Kasyanov before 300 delegates of an international non-proliferation conference implying that disarmament efforts be doubled; soon afterward Mr. Putin redeployed dozens of ICBMs. Such evidence of the military’s influence in policy making underscores the way in which state power is neither separated nor checked.

Alarm overseas at these developments has been present at least since the second Chechen war, which Mr. Yavilsky’s party has adamantly opposed. Especially considering that between seven and eight percent of Russia’s GDP will have to be expended simply on developing roads and other elements of a basic infrastructure if Russia wants to maintain a presence in the northern Caucuses. The Kremlin is concerned with only maintaining “filtration camps” and pounding Groznyy into dust.

Judging from its March 3 editorial the New York Times is more than willing to let them do so. Attempting to find a bright spot in Mr. Putin’s cabinet firings the editorial applauded the appointment of Mikhail Fradkov as Mr. Krasyanov’s successor despite his years with the KGB. Granted the difficulty in finding qualified appointees who didn’t get their hands red in some way is no easy task, but cherry picking from the intelligence services seems a sure recipe for disaster.

To give Mr. Yavlinsky the last word, “Russia has not had a civil society for 1000 years — this is a precondition not an excuse.”