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Friday, February 08, 2008

Calling Putin's Bluff

Writing in the Moscow Times Gregory Feifer, the Moscow bureau chief for National Public Radio, urges us to call Vladimir Putin's bluff:

Long before President Vladimir Putin publicly anointed Dmitry Medvedev to take over the Kremlin in December, the heir's words were being parsed for signs of what kind of leader he would make. But if there is one lesson to be learned from observing Putin's own presidency, it's precisely to avoid that mistake.

Never mind Medvedev's unflinchingly loyal service as a senior official in a government that has reversed Russia's democratic reforms in favor of Soviet-style authoritarianism. After all, Nikita Khrushchev showed no inclination for his liberalizing reform before he became general secretary. Kremlin critics now hope Medvedev might play a similar role after his all-but-certain victory in the election on March 2.

Medvedev, whose main duty as first deputy prime minister has been to oversee government initiatives to improve social programs, is commonly seen as a "soft" figure. That image -- purposely misleading by most accounts -- was shaped by more than a year of blanket coverage of his visits to hospitals and schools on state-controlled national television.

Abroad, the seemingly demure government bureaucrat earned points for favoring leather coats, listening to the rock group Deep Purple and charming investors at last year's World Economic Forum in Davos. Many hope that he is a relative liberal inside a Kremlin dominated by hard-line former KGB officers. When Medvedev said in a recent speech that Russia would be "open for dialogue and cooperation with the international community," some saw it as a signal Moscow would at least tone down Putin's aggressive confrontation with the West.

We heard much of the same minute analysis -- accompanied by much of the same kind of hope -- when Putin first appeared on the stage. Eight years ago, he was touted as an economic reformer who said his main goal was to strengthen the state, which was taken to mean bringing the country's rampant crime and corruption under control.

That rosy view of Putin managed to weather years of stark evidence to the contrary. Even as he prosecuted powerful businessmen who opposed him, attacked the independent media and changed the law to deprive Russia of its small measure of democracy, the Times of London hailed him as Russia's best leader since Alexander II, the tsar who freed the serfs in 1861.

Then came the jailing of Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the subsequent takeover of the oil company, the botched rescue attempt of the Beslan hostages and the abolition of gubernatorial elections in favor of Kremlin appointments. Putin went on to crack down against nongovernmental organizations, enact repressive laws against extremism and embark on a Cold War-style orgy of anti-Western saber rattling.

Some explained Putin's actions as an example of an unavoidable need to crack a few eggs. But to what public benefit? The corruption Putin promised to fight has skyrocketed. The stability for which he is widely lauded is a chimera. Violence is flaring across the North Caucasus, and the economy has flourished not because of his reforms, but chiefly because of the high prices for Russia's main export, oil. In December, Putin's stifling of the opposition and general political repression resulted in parliamentary elections that independent observers condemned as fixed. The exercise was part of an overarching, scripted project to ensure a smooth transfer of power to a successor whose outstanding quality is political loyalty.

The main lesson we should have learned from Putin's eight years in office is a recognition that under the traditional Russian political system that he has revitalized, not only do officials not mean what they say, but also that obfuscation is essential to the way it all works.

Harvard professor Edward Keenan believes that Russia's ruling elite has spent centuries hiding the workings of their entrenched, closed oligarchies behind the false appearance of Westernizing liberal reform. Bureaucratic reorganization under Peter the Great, the Enlightenment-influenced laws of Catherine the Great and even -- or especially -- the appearance of communism itself have helped protect the old clan rule, partly by fooling outsiders into believing the oligarchs were playing by other rules.

Putin's playing of the Russian political game has been virtuosic. Much has been made of his stint -- together with Medvedev's -- working under St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, an icon of liberal reform and pillar of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of perestroika. But Putin's service in a reforming -- if corrupt -- administration does not nullify his previous career as a KGB officer, much less his subsequent success in resurrecting authoritarianism.

In the early 1990s, democratization and economic liberalization -- or at least lip service to them -- represented the dominant ideology following the Soviet collapse. No good opportunist would have failed to sense the prevailing wind; many former KGB officers made good careers in the new world of Russian capitalism. Putin went on to being unswervingly loyal to the administration of Boris Yeltsin before turning on some of his former allies to suit his own needs once he was given power. Now he accuses them of having tried to destroy the country.

The prospect that the next president will have Putin's masterful political abilities is highly unlikely, and the appearance of a reforming Khrushchev or Gorbachev is doubly so. In any case, Medvedev has shown no genuine signs of becoming an independent actor, and the sensitive circumstances under which he was picked to assume leadership suggest that the odds are against the chance he will ever fit that mold.

As the president's last term draws to a close, rival Kremlin clans loyal to him are engaged in a bitter and dangerous turf war. Putin may continue playing his vital mediating role -- most likely in the capacity of prime minister, the post to which Medvedev has said he wants to appoint his mentor. Regardless, Medvedev's tapping of Putin as prime minister was all about helping preserve the system that Putin built. The fact that Putin's heir doesn't appear to be connected to former security service officers in the Kremlin should give little encouragement to the hope that he will become a reformer.

Of course it is impossible to predict what will happen under a future President Medvedev. But one thing is clear: If Putin showed us anything, it's that we should judge Russian rulers by what they do and not what they say.

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