Vladimir Putin has managed to convince a great number of people in his own country and abroad that he has restored order and greatness to the Russian Federation albeit at the cost of destroying many of the freedoms residents of that country had enjoyed under his predecessor.
But the tragic reality, according to one of Moscow’s most thoughtful and courageous political commentators, is that the Russian leader has succeeded in undermining basic freedoms without managing to restore order throughout the country or make Russia genuinely great again.
Instead, Yulia Latynina argues in “Yezhednevniy zhurnal” on Friday, Putin has focused on reestablishing order only on the oil and gas industries whose exports generate wealth for him and his associates and on others whose independence might threaten this cash flow.
Within the Russian Federation itself, these potentially threatening institutions are the electronic media and especially television whose exposes in the past have limited the freedom of action of the regime and the parliament whose public debates and investigations, as limited as they have sometimes been, also represented a threat.
Putin’s success in reining in both these institutions is one of the major reasons why so many Russians believe that the country is now more orderly and great, Latynina says. They simply do not have the information they need to understand precisely what the Russian president is doing and, equally important, is not doing.
And that domestic effort has been supplemented by a propaganda campaign directed abroad, an undertaking that, as Time’s decision to name Putin its “person of the year” shows, has been amazingly successful, Latynina writes, in large measure because it has been conducted by well-paid Western public relations and media specialists.
“From afar,” she continues, what Putin is trying to project looks “remarkably convincing. If you live in Wisconsin, it is easy to believe that this terrible Russia has again become something like Germany under Hitler. There may be no freedom, but there is Ordnung.”
If one examines the situation in Russia more closely, however, the image Putin has sought to project and that so many in both Russia and the West have been ready, even eager, to accept, falls apart, revealing a reality that is far more frightening and disturbing than most Russians or many in the West currently recognize.
In support of her argument, the Moscow commentator points to three situations in Russia, none of which corresponds to the image Putin tries to project and many others have put their faith in.
First, she points out as have many others that “the territory of Ingushetia is not controlled by Russia at all.” Is it really possible, Latynina asks rhetorically, that the “strong Russian state” Putin says he heads, one capable of “controlling the situation” throughout the country, would not control this North Caucasus republic?
Noting that Putin’s hand-picked leader of the region probably does not control anything more than his own office, she argues that Putin does not control Ingushetia “because he is not interested in it.” What is he interested in? Oil and gas exports and the money he and his confederates can get from them.
Second, she points out that “the Russian militia has almost ceased to solve crimes.” Bandits kill bank officers or children in Moscow, and the police do nothing or make up stories to explain away whatever has occurred. Such things do not normally happen in a democracy, Latynina says, where officials know they are expected to enforce the law.
But they also do not happen in effective dictatorships. “Such things are unthinkable in the USSR in Stalin’s time or Italy under Mussolini — indeed, in any country where the dictator takes upon himself responsibility for what takes place … and where criminals, who commit grave crimes, become the personal enemies of the regime.”
Related to this situation is the strange case of the son of the country’s defense minister. The son killed his own wife but is now suing her relatives for inflicting “physical and moral trauma” on him, according to his highly-placed father. If this is “the new order” in Russia, Latynina says, Putin should decree who can commit murder with impunity.
And third, the Moscow commentator notes, criminal elements simply ignore orders from above. Recently, criminals inside the law enforcement agencies stole millions of dollars of equipment being sent to Russia by Motorola for the Euroset Company. U.S. President George Bush asked Putin to intervene.
Putin promised to do so. But nothing happened. Either Putin did not want to punish this criminal whose actions had attracted the attention of Washington, or the millions of dollars the criminals were able to obtain from this theft were more important to them than the orders of the supposedly all-powerful Russian president.
Neither of these conclusions conform with the image of Putin and his regime that the Kremlin and its PR aides have projected, she notes. And consequently, anyone who wants to understand where Russia under Putin now is needs to carefully distinguish between those issues that concern the Kremlin leader and those that do not.
“President Putin is interested in questions connected with obtaining control over multi-billion dollar financial flows” which solves crimes, and he is interested in establishing control over only those other institutions — the parliament, the domestic electronic media, and the PR image of Russia internationally — that might threaten that control.
He is not concerned, she continues, about “questions concerning the illegal shooting of people, with the complete loss of control over the situation in the regions, with the total disappearance of law enforcement as a system which solves crimes” rather than its degeneration into a group of armed people “who commit them.”
That is not a description of a country whose leader has reestablished order or greatness even at the cost of freedom. Instead, it is a portrait of a country whose leadership is engaged in looting the wealth of the Russian Federation rather than involved in building a state, even an authoritarian one.
And as another author suggested this week, it is not a recipe for stability but rather for something worse. Sergei Gupalo, who heads the Committee Against Political Repression in the Republic of Tatarstan, argues that this approach threatens the survival of the Russian state as an integral whole ( forum.msk.ru/material/region/419057.html).
First of all, he said, Putin’s arrangements are creating a situation in which it is far from clear “where the bureaucracy begins and where the mafia ends” because so many bureaucrats now act like criminals interested only in seeing how much money they can steal and put into their own pockets.
Second, Gupalo argued, the degeneration of state institutions as a result already means that “the bureaucratic dragon” of Moscow is giving birth to many “little dragons” in the regions, mafia officialdoms whose behavior is modeled on but quite often worse and more ill-intentioned than that of the parent.
And third, the Kazan-based activist said, the developments threaten Russia with what he calls “the Somalia variant where formally there is some central government but where in fact [control of] the country is divided among various criminal gangs engaged in fighting one another.”
That picture, like the one offered by Latynina, may overstate the case, but it is clear that neither Putin nor his admirers at home or abroad are willing or able to explain how the problems these two writers highlight are in any way consistent with the notion that at the cost of freedom, Putin has made Russia orderly and great.
Window on Eurasia
By Paul Goble
Until December 2006, Paul Goble was vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. While there, he launched the “Window on Eurasia” series which at that time he distributed directly via e-mail. Prior to joining the faculty there in 2004, he served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He writes frequently on ethnic and religious issues and has edited five volumes on ethnicity and religion in the former Soviet space. Trained at Miami University in Ohio and the University of Chicago, he has been decorated by the governments of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for his work in promoting Baltic independence and the withdrawal of Russian forces from those formerly occupied lands..