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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Chokehold Tightens

The Sunday Telegraph reports on yet another blatant example of Vladimir Putin's Kremlin seizing control over private property and dominating the presentation of information on TV:

It was the kind of announcement that would unnerve more democratic leaders. But when Russia's football chiefs struck an exclusive £50 million deal with a satellite television channel to screen all the country's premier league matches, President Vladimir Putin did not miss a beat.

Instead, with television cameras rolling, Mr Putin accused the television company and the Russian Football Union of wanting "to deprive us ordinary guys of watching soccer for free" - and then ordered Dmitri Medvedev, the first deputy prime minister, to "sort out the mess".

The result was a foregone conclusion. Last week the channel, NTV-Plus, bowed to Mr Putin's wishes and announced that the premier league season would, after all, also be screened on state-run television.

The exchange revealed not only the means by which Mr Putin is still tightening his grip on Russian politics and life, but also his determination to ensure that his chosen successor becomes president when he has to step down.

Mr Medvedev, 41, a lawyer from St Petersburg, is the chairman of Gazprom, Russia's natural gas monopoly, and one of two men whom Mr Putin apparently wants to take over from him in the elections due to be held next March.

It was not difficult for Mr Medvedev to intervene in this case, despite a legal contract - the television company is a subsidiary of Gazprom.

By delivering an outcome that made Mr Putin and himself look good, Mr Medvedev scored valuable political points over his rival pretender to the Kremlin throne, Sergei Ivanov, the former defence minister.

Mr Ivanov, 54, a veteran of Russia's foreign secret service, also has St Petersburg connections - a useful attribute when seeking advancement under Mr Putin, who forged his KGB career in that city.

Four weeks ago, he was also marked for favour by being appointed a first deputy prime minister, Mr Medvedev's equal, having served as his subordinate for 14 months.

As Russia's answer to Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the pair, in effect, act to divert any criticism of the Kremlin, enabling Mr Putin apparently to rise above disputes within his government and play the role of supreme arbitrator.

The president's objective is to maintain a semblance of political pluralism but also a resolute grip on power as the election approaches, bringing with it the most dangerous moment in Russian politics, the transition of power.

Moscow insiders question whether Mr Putin really intends to step down, as the constitution requires, when he completes his second term. But if he does, he would certainly prefer whoever follows him to be a successor in name only, so that he can continue to wield power behind the scenes - someone capable and loyal but without the charisma, charm, guile or ambition that have served Mr Putin so well.Mr Medvedev and Mr Ivanov could fit that bill.

Mr Ivanov, a fluent English and Swedish speaker who likes to read John Le Carré thrillers in their original language, has a reputation for being colder and less Western-oriented.

He attracted criticism in Russia as defence minister for his lack of emotion when Chechen rebels killed big numbers of Russian troops.

He received more flak in 2005 when a car driven by his eldest son killed a woman on a zebra crossing. Mr Ivanov was accused of intervening to ensure no charges were brought.

Mr Medvedev has no such handicaps. A graduate of St Petersburg University, who as a student was keen on photography, the heavy rock band Black Sabbath and weightlifting, he is more personable and perhaps more palatable to the West. He married his college sweetheart, Svetlana, and they have a son. During most of the 1990s he taught law and is the author of a university textbook on civil law. With elderly parents living in St Petersburg, Mr Medvedev has much in common with ordinary Russians. Even his officially declared income, equivalent to £110,000, is modest compared with that of some Kremlin figures.

Mr Putin may make it possible for both to run for president - creating the appearance of a free and democratic choice, but in fact ensuring that whoever wins proves to be a Putin loyalist.

Many saw last week's regional elections as a dry run for this strategy. In what appeared to be a fight among three parties in the 14 federal districts up for grabs, United Russia and the recently established Just Russia - supposedly a Left-of-centre alternative - won 58 per cent of the vote between them, pushing the Communist Party into third place. Yet both the victorious parties are creations of the Kremlin, ensuring Mr Putin could not lose, either way.

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