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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Annals of Dictatorship: Putin Fashions a Centralized State

Writing in the Moscow Times, columnist Nikolai Petro explains how Putin is slowly centralized power in Russia, laying the groundwork for dictatorship. Even if you like Putin, there are no safeguards in place to prevent this power from being seized and abused by a maniac you don't like. Remember how Stalin followed Lenin? Russians have learned nothing from their history and hence are doomed to repeat and be destroyed by it:

Over the seven years of Vladimir Putin's presidency, there has been a marked shift of power from the regions to state corporations. Before, the governors had a free hand to do what they wanted; now this has been granted to state-controlled companies. This power shift was demonstrated by the latest round of dismissals of governors.

Samara Governor Konstantin Titov last month was the third replacement of a regional head since the beginning of August. Earlier that month, Novgorod Governor Mikhail Prusak, a veteran politician and one of President Boris Yeltsin's first appointments, was dismissed. The second to lose his job was Sakhalin Governor Ivan Malakhov.

These three successive gubernatorial dismissals come on the eve of State Duma elections, when the leadership would not normally switch horses midstream. On one hand, it is clear that the dismissals were connected to upcoming elections, particularly to the presidential vote. On the other hand, it is evident that the Kremlin has less need than ever for governors -- especially those who cannot be used to pull in votes for United Russia.

It is important to note the backgrounds of those who will replace the dismissed regional heads. The new Sakhalin governor is connected to Rosneft, the Samara governor from state arms exporter Rosoboronexport and the Novgorod governor from the Agriculture Ministry.

These events underscore the break between Moscow and the governors. The pendulum of power between the regions and the center had been functioning properly for many years, but now it seems to have broken. Prior to the last elections, when there was no issue of a presidential successor, the Kremlin needed only a simple majority in the Duma and seemed to have little need for the governors' support. During this time, the pendulum of power shifted in favor of the regions.

Soon after Putin's re-election, however, the Kremlin began a new offensive against the governors that culminated in the 2004 decision to cancel gubernatorial elections and appoint regional heads from Moscow. It seems that the Kremlin is planning to tighten its grip even further on the regions.

Many of the regional political machines remain intact, despite Kremlin efforts toward centralization. Moscow will reappoint politicians who have kept an iron hold over their administrations -- even if it means closing its eyes to occasional opposition to the Kremlin and violations of the law. This applies to Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiyev, Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov, Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleyev, Mayor Yury Luzhkov and others. And by the same logic, governors whose political machines cannot generate either the necessary votes for their own re-elections or in support of Kremlin policy will probably be replaced -- most likely by individuals with ties to state corporations.

The regional political power structures are an important instrument that helps leaders of a large country hold onto their authority. Under Stalin, when state control was at an all-time high, this was achieved by total control of the law enforcement agencies and the regular rotation of regional leaders and generals.

The Kremlin has cleared a place for large state corporations, which have powerful financial and administrative resources. These companies are equipped with their own media structures, analysts and political strategists. They are savvy political players, signing contracts with regional governors, participating directly in election campaigns and subsequently lobbying their interests in the Duma and regional legislatures through deputies with whom they are closely connected. Among the most influential of these corporate players are Gazprom, Russian Railways, Unified Energy System and Rosoboronexport.

A model of oligarchic state capitalism has thus arisen out of Russia's weakened democratic institutions. Much can be said about the political deficiencies of this system. It is inherently unstable and epitomizes the predominance of corporate over national interests, just as the regional power structure epitomized the predominance of the interests of the regional elite. A corporatist, state-sponsored oligarchy is inherently undemocratic because its policies are formulated privately rather than publicly. Furthermore, it is created by the political elite to serve its own interests and does not reflect the needs or wishes of the people.

A news story in the Moscow Times continues the theme, explaining how Putin using the same claim of "attacking corruption" that was used by Stalin, reaching down to the lowest levels of government to completely destroy the identity of local polities and make all of Russia subservient slaves of Moscow. Writing in the MT, Russian analyst Fyodor Lukyanov stated: "There is no sense at this point in making forecasts about the the Kremlin's future foreign policy because Putin's style makes predictions impossible." Indeed. And so it was with Stalin as well. Russians seem to be a crazed, foolish people, consigning their children to oblivion and horror.

Prosecutors in Khanty-Mansiisk are investigating Mayor Valery Sudeikin on suspicion of abuse of office, the latest in a series of crackdowns on mayors in recent months. Sudeikin is suspected of illegally procuring a new apartment for a female resident, a spokeswoman for the Khanty-Mansiisk regional branch of the Investigative Committee, Yelena Skobeleva, said by telephone Monday. In February 2005, Sudeikin resettled the woman in a municipal apartment building slated for demolition, Skobeleva said. He then ordered the building to be razed, meaning the woman received an apartment in a new building despite the fact that other residents were legally entitled to receive new apartments before she did, Skobeleva said. "Sudeikin did it knowingly, and thus he deliberately violated rights of other citizens who were waiting in line for new apartments," she said. The investigation was opened Thursday, though Sudeikin has not been formally charged. If charged and convicted, he could face up to seven years in prison.

A woman who answered the phone at Sudeikin's office refused to comment and referred all questions to the mayor's spokeswoman, Elvira Chekhunina. Repeated calls to Chekhunina's office went unanswered Monday afternoon. Sudeikin was first elected mayor of Khanty-Mansiisk, capital of the Khanty-Mansiisk autonomous district, in June 2001 and re-elected in October.

The investigation is the latest in a string of legal crackdowns on mayors of large cities, which some analysts say is an attempt by the Kremlin and governors to instill greater loyalty in city bosses.

  • Arkhangelsk Mayor Alexander Donskoi is in custody awaiting trial on charges of illegal business activities.
  • In June, former Volgograd Mayor Yevgeny Ishchenko was sentenced to one year in prison for illegal business activities and released, having served his time while in custody.
  • Tolyatti Mayor Nikolai Utkin is awaiting trial on extortion charges.

Mayors' legal difficulties largely stem from conflicts with their respective governors, said Rostislav Turovsky, an analyst with the Agency for Regional Information, a Moscow think tank. But the Kremlin could use the cases to justify canceling mayoral elections and appointing mayors instead, Turovsky said. The Kremlin canceled gubernatorial elections in late 2004, while mayors are still elected. Lawmakers from the pro-Kremlin United Russia party last year unsuccessfully attempted to pass a law effectively canceling popular elections of mayors. Khanty-Mansiisk regional prosecutors have been particularly zealous in their crackdown on mayors. On a single day in December, they opened 49 separate criminal cases against Vyacheslav Grigoryev, mayor of the town of Sovetsky. Grigoryev was sentenced to five years in April for fraud connected to distribution of city property.

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