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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Putin's Betrayal of Russia Runs Wide and Deep

Former Russian diplomat Vladimir Kuznetsov, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle:

At the beginning of 2000, I wrote a letter to Vladimir Putin. Russian President Boris Yeltsin had just handed over power to him. I knew nothing about Putin except his official biography. As a former Russian regional governor of Primorsky Kray, I had the right, the obligation and sincere desire to help the new man in office. The letter contained a brief analysis of the situation in the country and a list of urgent measures that, to my mind, could be effective in overcoming the deficiencies and shortcomings of Russia's first attempt at democracy. I was very serious about that. Russia needed a new chance after the lost 1990s.

At the end of the letter, I gave the most radical and, as I understand now, unacceptable piece of advice. "Your historic achievement," I wrote, "can be the creation of a competitive environment in the political life, so that on one beautiful day you won't have to appoint the successor with the 'feeling of deep responsibility.' It would be much better if you give the opportunity to the possible candidates to develop their skills, to show their worth, so that people can make a real choice, not of a 'dark horse,' as they are in electing you." (Of course, I said, the voters believed in his intellect, honesty and sincerity.)

Putin has done just the opposite. He has been consistent in pursuing total control, subordination and reliance only on trusted friends. These practices have resulted in replicating the vertical power of the Soviet system, in which practically all significant officials are appointed, not elected.

In Russia today, democracy is just imitated and has nothing to do with real expression of political will; the media is under control; and the judiciary uses the law to serve executive power. Putin's cult of personality can be compared to that of earlier Communist leaders, like Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev or Brezhnev. Putin now has the system totally dependent on his popularity with no stable democratic institutions and no real political parties. His only option was to announce his successor, and he did so. You can be 100 percent sure that the next president of Russia will be Dimitry Medvedev - Putin's choice. And under the circumstances, this is the best choice. But if Putin had tried to go beyond this simplification of political structure, he would have had much better choices. Russia has talented and capable people, including some who could improve the U.S.-Russian relations. It is no secret that they have badly deteriorated.

I met Medvedev several years ago in a Moscow apartment, where a number of distinguished guests were present - academicians, movie producers, artists, businessmen, physicians. Medvedev was there with his wife, Svetlana. The party was on New Year's Eve and people were talking, laughing, even singing. Medvedev was the only one who was silent most of the time, sipping cognac, standing by the window. He did not seem comfortable there. At that time, he was deputy head of Putin's administration, so I took the opportunity to discuss the situation in Primorsky Kray. I knew that my successor, regional governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko, had become a headache for the Kremlin. When the guests were leaving, I asked, "What are you going to do with Nazdratenko?" Turning red, Medvedev nearly shouted, "Your friend Nazdratenko is such a nut!"

I interrupted to explain that we were far from friends and that I had suggestions regarding Primorsky Kray and its paranoiac leader. "Come to my office in Kremlin in three days," Medvedev said. "Unfortunately, I am leaving tomorrow," I replied. "I do not invite twice" was his answer.

I had no choice but to change my plane reservation. When I saw Medvedev three days later, he was quite different - calm and considerate, polite and polished. No anger. No agitation. No desire to rock the boat. It was clear that he had spoken with his boss, Alexander Voloshin, who favored Nazdratenko. So, now there was nothing to talk about.

That day, I discovered Medvedev's cautiousness and pragmatism. Since then, he has not demonstrated anything to contradict my initial impression. His steady journey to the highest office in the country is nearly complete. The Russian elections take place March 2. We will see after that whether he has any political agenda of his own and whether he has developed any political ambition or passion.

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