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Friday, October 20, 2006

Zaire with Permafrost

One cannot praise too highly the perspicacity of Atlantic magazine's Jeffrey Tayler, who memorably predicted in a May 2001 article entitled "Russia is Finished" that the country was on the way to becoming "Zaire with permafrost." A fine bookend for this analysis is provided in by Richard Lourie (pictured) most recent column for the Moscow Times. Perhaps the question we must now ask is, was Tayler a tad too optimistic? Is Zaire just a faraway goal that Russia might hope to reach one day?

Russia is simply becoming more Darwinian. It is not only democracy that is dying, but civilization itself. Democracy is just a sign of advanced civilization. It is based on the assumption that individuals are of significance and their voices should be heard. Exactly the opposite message is projected when a leader and a party stifle any opposition to its power in the polls and the courts.

A free press is another attribute of civilization, but not only because people need information about the truth. A free press is in itself an assumption, a value, a message that reality is complex, each individual has a unique perspective and so a truer picture of reality is achieved when as many points of view as possible are taken into account.

The 12 journalists who have been killed in Russia since President Vladimir Putin came to power were probably killed to avenge something already written or to prevent the publication of something else. But an atmosphere in which individuals and free institutions are held in open contempt also facilitated these murders.

This contempt was evident in the remarks Putin made after two days of silence about the slaying of Anna Politkovskaya. "I think that journalists should be aware that her influence on political life was extremely insignificant in scale." The woman is two days dead and the president of her country pronounces her life's work "extremely insignificant." But Putin takes her death almost as an affront, at the very least, a smudge on his regime: "This murder inflicts more harm and damage to the governments of Russia and Chechnya than did her publications."

A few months after Putin came to power in 2000, he convened a meeting of the oligarchs in the Kremlin and told them they could keep their ill-gotten gains if they kept out of politics. But there was another power bloc that had to be attended to -- the real mafias as opposed to the educated business types who had spotted their big chance. Former President Boris Yeltsin constantly complained that something like 40 percent of the economy was under criminal control. But Putin apparently reached some sort of modus vivendi with the criminal world. They stopped killing each other in the streets and concentrated their efforts on traditional areas like drugs, prostitution and gambling or went semi-legit. But money has to be laundered. It's certainly possible that the murder of Central Bank First Deputy Chairman Andrei Kozlov, the Politkovskaya of banking, was a result of his threatening the flow of such funds. Sensing the lawlessness in the land, the mafias could now be resurgent.

In any case, some sort of gigantic struggle is afoot in Russia, a new "divvying up." Most of it takes place behind the scenes, but its violent reverberations are felt everywhere: When Georgia arrests four Russians on charges of espionage, the response is overkill -- all transportation and postal links severed. Shell Oil's project on Sakhalin Island is charged with serious environmental violations. All the foreign companies bidding for a part in the development of the Shtokman gas field in the Barents Sea are summarily rejected. A senior official at TNK-BP, Enver Ziganshin, is shot dead.

Yukos and its former CEO, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, may well have breached the understanding reached with Putin, but in the post-Yukos era the same contempt felt for journalism, justice and politics has infected the rules of the game in business as well.

The murders of Kozlov the banker, Ziganshin the oilman and Politkovskaya the journalist all no doubt had their specific causes about which we will probably never know any more than we will know who pulled the trigger or paid the killer. But what they all have in common is that they emerge from the context created in Russia over the last few years. Putin's chickens have come home to roost. And they're not chickens, they're vultures.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."

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