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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Perils of Putinism

A Wall Street Journal editorial on the recent parliamentary elections in Russia:

Plans for a transition of power were unveiled [last] week in Russia. The news is that there won't be one.

Many Russians and foreign investors alike were cheered by Vladimir Putin's clearest signal yet of his intention to stay in charge beyond March's presidential elections. Shares soared on his endorsement Monday of longtime aide Dmitry Medvedev to nominally take his spot in the Kremlin. Shares jumped again a day later when the heir apparent returned the favor and pledged to name Mr. Putin as the next Prime Minister with, so everyone presumes, stronger powers than the next President.

This choreographed switcheroo is Putinism to a tee. The President and his men trample on civic freedoms and concentrate power in the name of "order" and "stability." With the economy growing on the back of oil approaching $100 a barrel, up from $15 when Mr. Putin took office in 2000, complaints are muted--sometimes by force. But of all people, Russians ought to have learned from history that personalizing and centralizing so much authority brings trouble down the road.

An old friend of Mr. Putin's from his KGB days told us this week that the President wanted to step down to establish a precedent for future Russian leaders. But in the same breath he said that it was too dangerous for Mr. Putin to step aside--for Russia, and for Mr. Putin himself. This is largely true, and is another feature of Putinism.

The President has made himself indispensable to keeping the peace among his boyars. The 42-year-old Mr. Medvedev holds no sway over the influential Kremlin group of siloviky--the ex-KGB men around Mr. Putin, a KGB colonel himself--or the security services as a whole. To them, as well presumably to Mr. Putin, Mr. Medvedev's remarkable features are his loyalty and lack of any evident charisma. An added bonus for Mr. Putin is that his choice of sidekick-in-chief was hailed abroad as a "liberal"--which is only true compared to the other candidates floated in recent months. Mr. Medvedev's first comments Tuesday were so deferential to Mr. Putin that no doubt was left about who will stay boss.

The Putinites have their own self-serving reasons for wanting the current regime to continue. Though less brashly than the oligarchs around Boris Yeltsin, the current establishment has done very well for itself in the past eight years. Dmitry Trenin, a Russian analyst at Carnegie's Moscow Center, writes in his new book "Getting Russia Right" that the same people "rule and own" the country. Having expropriated wealth from the previous crowd, they're worried that the same could happen to them.

Mr. Putin knows that leaving power is dangerous for a Russian politician. Every single previous national leader went out in a coffin (from natural or unnatural causes) or in disgrace. So he is looking for ways to protect himself by holding on to the reins.

This transition could have helped Russian democracy to mature. The country lost an opportunity in this decade of good economic times to build a proper and predictable political system around institutions rather than men. The blame falls squarely on Mr. Putin.

If all the President cared about was restoring economic health and Russian pride, he could have claimed credit for the few good reforms his government carried out (such as the flat 13% income tax) and rode the petroleum boom to the bank. But his actions reveal a deep unease about his own appeal to Russians.

The Kremlin went out of its way to destroy the free media, freeze out national opposition parties, cancel the elections of regional governors, and shrink independent civil institutions. The courts and the Duma were neutered, and elections made irrelevant. This month's parliamentary poll was the least free since Mikhail Gorbachev introduced perestroika.

A turning point was Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" in 2004. There, an Orthodox Slav nation rose against a corrupt and authoritarian clique in spite of a booming economy; this came too close to home for the Kremlin. In its wake, Mr. Putin has turned Russia's government into the most anti-Western outside of Iran, Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela. The recent campaign saw his nationalism hit a new high pitch.

The absence of democracy is dangerous for Russia, and the world. Putinism hangs on a single man. It denies Russians a proper outlet to discuss their problems. Others will be found. Fast rising inflation has brought impromptu demonstrations. The Kremlin has opened a Pandora's box by embracing neo-fascist youth groups and ideas that will be hard to control. After the thaw under Messrs. Gorbachev and Yeltsin, Russian citizens are once again nothing compared to the power of the state, and they may one day rediscover a taste for liberty. All of this makes Russia unpredictable.

In the meantime, power struggles will continue among various factions inside the Kremlin, beyond view and unchecked by laws. Contrary to its own advertising, Putinism has sown the seeds of instability. The tapping of Mr. Medvedev and the prominent role carved for Mr. Putin in no way ends the great uncertainty about Russia's near- and long-term future. It merely accentuates it.

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