Democracy According to Putin

Dmitri N. Shalin

A shorter version of this article was published in The Las Vegas Review-Journal, October 24, 2007,

The year 1996 began inauspiciously for Vladimir Putin, an aid to St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak who had just lost his bid for reelection. After declining a post in the new administration, Putin laid low for a few months when a telephone call from Moscow summoned him to a higher duty. What followed was the spectacular rise to power that saw Putin assume increasingly demanding responsibilities as deputy chief of the President’s General Affairs Administration, head of the Inspector General’s Office, director of the Federal Security Agency, secretary of the National Security Council, prime minister of the Russian Federation, and after Boris Yeltsin abruptly resigned on December 31, 1999, Russia’s acting president.

With the presidential election slated in three months, Putin sat down for a series of hastily arranged interviews that were published in early 2000 under the title First Person. True to the genre, the book is filled with campaign promises, glowing testimonies from friends and carefully selected snippets of the politician’s character building youth. In spite of its sampling-by-anecdote and validating-through-hearsay approach, this campaign biography makes for compelling reading now that Putin is nearing the end of his last term in office.

The story begins with Putin-the-roughneck eager to become “the king of the courtyard,” then learning to channel his ambition into legitimate pursuits like Judo wrestling and political activism. “I was a hooligan,” “I was a really bad boy,” Putin tells the interviewer. By the end of middle school, however, he gets himself elected head of his Young Pioneer cell.

Next, we read about Putin-the-budding-spy, a starry-eyed ninth grader, visiting a local K.G.B. office to inquire how he can prepare himself for the agency. Following the expert advice, he works hard to improve his grades, enrolls in a law school and finally gets a call to join the K.G.B. Asked by a friend what his new duties entailed, Putin replies: “I am a specialist in human relations.”

Then, there is Putin-the-strategist taking Henry Kissinger for a drive through his native city, lamenting the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and echoing the elder statesman’s misgivings about Gorbachev’s hasty retreat from Eastern Europe. “All decent people got their start in intelligence. I did, too,” Kissinger tells the Sobchak’s trusted aid after learning about his background.

A defining moment for Putin-the-statesman came with the collapse of the Berlin wall when angry crowds, fresh from ransacking the offices of the hated Stasi police, converged on the Soviet intelligence building in Dresden. An urgent call for help to the Berlin headquarters brought no relief: “We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow. And Moscow is silent,” Putin remembers being told at the time. “I got the feeling then that the country no longer existed . . . it had a terminal disease without a cure – a paralysis of power.”

This unsettling experience informed the emergency program that Putin unveiled in May 1997 at a closed-door press conference. To avoid a complete collapse the nation must turn to the security agencies, Putin told the invited audience. It should engage the K.G.B. cadres – the only force in the country immune to corruption and able to rein in restive regions.

Boris Yeltsin bought into this program, but not Galina Starovoitova. A member of the Russian parliament and a co-chair of the Democratic Party, she pressed for a statute that would make it difficult for party functionaries to reenter politics and “bar ex-K.G.B. officers for life.” In an interview posted on the International Biography Initiative web site, Starovoitova explains why such a bill was vital for Russia after 70 years of communist rule and describes the strenuous opposition to her legislative initiative and the round-the-clock F.S.B. surveillance she was subjected to in recent years. Asked what she would do if served with an arrest warrant, Starovoitova responded: “What are you talking about? You don’t know our opposition – this time they will be shooting on the spot.”

These words proved prescient. On November 21, 1998, four months after Putin took over as the F.S.B. director, Starovoitova was killed in the doorway of her apartment building by an assassin who put three bullets through her head. It is doubtful Putin personally commissioned the murder, but there is no doubt as to what he thought about the critics of the security agencies. He made this clear in his interviews where he railed against those who “proposed opening up the lists of agents and declassifying [K.G.B.] files,” professed his “greatest respect” for Kryuchkov, the K.G.B. head who sided with the anti-Gorbachev plotters, and extolled the virtues of citizen-informers who “supply ninety percent of all intelligence information.”

The Starovoitova assassination was the first in a string of unsolved murders and suspicious deaths that claimed the lives of legislators, investigative journalists and human rights activists whose activities threatened to expose the authorities:

  • Artyom Borovik, a prominent journalist investigating corruption in the higher echelons of power, perished in a suspicious plane crush on March 3, 2000.
  • Yuri Shchekochikhin, a State Duma Deputy crusading against the illegal armed sales, collapsed and died on July 3, 2003, after an unexplained allergic reaction.
  • Nikolai Girenko, human rights activist fighting Russian fascists, was killed by a rifle shot on June 19, 2004, while answering the door at his apartment.
  • Paul Klebnikov, editor of the Russian version of the Forbes magazine, was murdered on a Moscow street July 9, 2004, as he zeroed in on the shady deals of the nation’s elites.
  • Anna Politkovskaya, a relentless critique of Putin and his Chechnya policies, was shot dead close to her home on October 7, 2006, an apparent victim of a contract killing.
  • Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-K.G.B. officer who wrote about the possible F.S.B. involvement in blowing up apartment buildings in Moscow, was poisoned in London by Polonium 210 on November 24, 2006.

An increasing number of Putin’s critics are seeking refuge in the West, including Yelena Tregubova who obtained asylum in Britain after a bomb exploded on her doorsteps following publication of her unflattering book about Putin, and most recently, Fatima Tlisova, editor-in-chief of the news agency Regnum, who convinced the U.S. authorities to grant her asylum after the severe beating tied to her reports about the brutalities in Chechnya.

In his 2000 campaign biography Putin sought to reassure the public about his intentions. “I am not a dictator,” he told the interviewers, “we are part of western European culture,” “[ours] is the path of democratic development,” “we have to preserve local government and a system of election for governors,” “the demands to confiscate and nationalize property [are wrong]. That’s definitely not going to happen.”

Putin began to break his campaign promises even before his presidential inauguration when he had handed over Andrei Babitsky, a prominent journalist writing about the war in Chechnya, to the rebels in exchange for Russian soldiers. Pressed to explain which law authorized using citizens for such a tradeoff, Putin said, “He’s not a Russian journalist,” “he was working for the bandits,” “he went himself.”

Putin’s pledge to respect private enterprise was exposed once he went after Yukos, the biggest privately owned oil company in Russia, which was taken over by a state corporation and businessmen close to the president. Other business oligarchs with far worse records of tax paying were spared the expropriation after hastily swearing their loyalty to the Kremlin, making lavish donations to its pet projects, or ceding to the state controlling stakes in their businesses.

Key aids in the Putin administration now preside over corporate boards of major Russian companies. Where else would you find the first deputy prime minister (Dmitri Medvedev) chairing the board of directors of the nation’s leading gas corporation, the defense minister (Anatoly Serdiukov) presiding over a major chemical company, and the minister of economic development (German Gref) overseeing an investment firm?

Nor did Putin’s promise to respect civil society survive the test of time. Gubernatorial elections were phased out after terrorists seized a school in the city of Beslan. Opposition parties are now routinely denied registration. N.G.O. and human rights groups, especially those with international funding, are dogged with frivolous tax investigations and pressured to cease their activities. And psychiatry is once again pressed into service to silence Russian dissidents.

In 2004, Putin ordered to attach the Andropov commemorative plaque to the Lubyanka building and lavishly celebrated the 90th birthday of the ex-K.G.B. chief. Add to this his successful campaign to restore the Soviet era national anthem, to place the hammer and sickle back onto the state regalia and allow the red star as an official symbol of the Russian armed forces, and you will understand why Russian democrats are wary of Vladimir Putin.

No, he is not scheming to restore the Soviet Union and communist party rule. We can glean his design from the fact that nearly three quarters of the top officials in the Putin administration have an intelligence background – the very people Galina Starovoitova sought to ban from government. Putin’s legacy is K.G.B. capitalism, the system with intelligence operatives in charge, vast profits going to loyal friends and liberal opponents subjected to continuous harassment by patriotic mobs.

The last point is a particularly ominous. Putin no longer has to give orders – ultranationalists know where the wind is blowing. While local authorities confiscate the newspapers published by the regime’s liberal opponents, book stores are swamped with the crypto-fascist propaganda. Anti-gay violence is on the rise. Since the beginning of this year, 34 people are reported to have been killed by skinheads around the nation, with many more knifed and brutally beaten.

Full-scale racial riots broke out on November 7, 2006, when inebriated customers started a brawl at the Azerbaijani owned restaurant in the city of Kondopoga that left several people dead. Angry crowd soon joined the fray, driving out of town residents with suspect ethnic features. Speaking in the wake of Kondopoga, Putin left no doubt which side he was on, as he swore to protect “the native Russian population.”

While Putin maintains a deafening silence about the rising tide of xenophobia in Russia, he lashes eloquently at his opponents. Thus, he famously promised to “rub off in the toilet” his enemies. He invited a foreign journalist querying him about human rights in Chechnya to try the Russia circumcision that would “leave nothing growing there anymore.” Answering the charge that he stifles freedom of the press, Putin quipped that “the authorities must persist like a man, while the press must resist [their advances] like a woman.”

“You won’t believe me, but I was assigned to study the [Hamburg] red-light district as part of my job,” Putin intimated in his autobiography. One can believe that. When interviewers queried Putin in 2000 about his favorite leaders, they got the answer, “Napoleon Bonaparte.” No doubt, Russia’s president was kidding. But what was he thinking when he told Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, “Give my greetings to your president [Moshe Katsav]. What a man! He raped 10 women. . . . We are all envious.” Or when he delivered this bromide at the last G8 summit: “ I am an absolute and pure democrat. . . . It’s that I am alone, there simply aren’t others like this in the world. . . . [A]fter the death of Mahatma Gandhi, there’s nobody to talk to.”

Putin’s countrymen love such offbeat humor. The president’s ratings seem to go up a notch every time he comes up with a zinger. But to someone less enamored with his peculiar charisma, Putin’s demeanor reminds of what Jack Katz, U.C.L.A. criminologist, called “hardman” who strikes without warning and “seizes on chaos as a provocation to manifest transcendent powers of control.”

It is easy to understand why a man like Putin was summoned to lead his country at this critical historical juncture. Sober-minded, hard working, intellectually alive, fiercely loyal to his friends and ruthless with his enemies – Putin seemed just the kind of leader Russia needed to pull itself from under the rubble of its harrowing past. He is committed to preventing the collapse of his country and restoring its influence in the world, yet democracy according to Putin has little to do with the European values Russia’s president pledged to uphold.

George W. Bush once intimated after meeting Vladimir Putin that he looked into the man’s eyes, saw his soul, and knew he could work with the Russian president. It doesn’t seem like President Bush has figured out his Russian counterpart, or he wouldn’t have entertained him at his private estate at Kennebunkport, the honor he withheld from other Western leaders.

So, what happens when a president with a castrating sense of humor meets the one who trusts waterboarding to keep the world safe for democracy?

I’ll let you supply the punch line for this joke.

June 2007