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Russia Is Finished - Page 3
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Putin the Terrible

n New Year's Eve, 1999, Yeltsin resigned and handed over executive power to his Prime Minister, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, a former KGB agent who had recently served as the head of the KGB's successor agency, the Federal Security Service, or FSB. Yeltsin and his entourage chose Putin, a relative unknown, because Putin had the security connections to protect them once Yeltsin left office; and Putin's first deed as acting President was to sign a decree granting Yeltsin immunity from prosecution. After nine years of national impoverishment, privatization scandals, the mafiya takeover of the business world, the bombardment of the Supreme Soviet, two wars in Chechnya, and the countrywide entrenchment of corruption (not to mention the economic collapse of 1998, which the oligarchs and state officials were rumored to have brought about for their own enrichment), members of the Yeltsin administration had reason to fear for their liberty and even their lives. Thus, to save his skin, Yeltsin left the Kremlin in the hands of an officer of the very agency that had kept the Soviet regime in power through mass murder, expropriation, exile, torture, surveillance, violation of individual liberties, blackmail, and lies.

As the former head of the FSB, Putin may well have had damaging information on all his rivals in the presidential election that was to take place three months after his appointment. The media reported a groundswell of support for Putin among the electorate—impossible to measure in real terms, given the media's obvious bias in his favor, although his stated intent to restore order in Russia did resonate with many. Most of the other candidates gave up the race without a fight, and Putin won the election in the first round. Given that he had come to power on a wave of hysteria about the war in Chechnya (a war he had launched, albeit in response to the Chechen invasion of Dagestan) and panic generated by terrorist explosions that destroyed apartment buildings in several Russian cities (for which, it was rumored, his associates were responsible), it is tempting to conclude that his election resulted from a scenario contrived to dupe the Russian public into choosing a ruler their hated former President had chosen. Even this scenario, however, failed to arouse much interest or anger: Russians expect skulduggery from their politicians.

In his addresses to the public, Putin showed that he understood the parlous condition of his country. Russians, he said, had built only "the carcass of a civic society"; they failed to obey laws; they were demographically moving toward becoming a "senile nation." Most tellingly, he praised the state security organs, including the FSB, for "guard[ing] Russia's national interests," said Russians were "not ready to abandon traditional dependence on the state and become self-reliant individuals," and declared that they wanted "a restoration of a guiding and regulatory role of the state"—words that left no doubt about his plans.

Since taking office Putin has moved to restore the state. He has set about strengthening the vertikal' vlasti, the "vertical line of power"—an oblique way of saying his own authority. Though the President's power was already czarlike, owing to Yeltsin's constitution, it was not enough for Putin. He has redrawn Russia's administrative boundaries along the lines of those of imperial Russia, and in five out of seven of the "new" federal regions he has put former military or intelligence officers in charge. He has launched a campaign to oust governors on corruption charges—governors opposed to the Kremlin, that is. (Corruption serves as a convenient brush with which to tar opponents. Some estimates say that seven in ten government officials are corrupt; the real number may be higher. No matter—when it suits the state, guilt can be manufactured on demand.) He has prosecuted the war in Chechnya to the point of obliterating that republic.

Putin needs pliant and adoring media to ensure an absolutist rule. He has stood behind a proposed "informational security doctrine" that would ban any foreign ownership of media in Russia as a "threat to national security." Some in the State Security Council have opposed the bill, because they believe that Russian journalists are "just as dangerous"; so now there is talk of imposing restrictions on Russian reporters, too. Putin has referred to those who write news unfavorable to the state as "traitors." He has put a KGB veteran in charge of the telecommunications industry. Journalists in the provinces continue to suffer the intimidation and beatings (or worse) that they knew in Yeltsin's years, and similar repression has begun to reach the capital. Last summer the prosecutor general's office moved to indict the oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, the head of Media-Most, which owns Russia's last independent television network, on charges of fraud. The charges may prove true, but given the widespread theft practiced by other oligarchs, pursuing Gusinsky, whose network has voiced strong opposition to Putin's war in Chechnya, amounts to selective prosecution.

For the first time since Soviet days slavishly adoring chronicles of the country's leader have hit the stands in some cities. Putin supported the reinstatement of a slightly modified version of Stalin's national anthem, which had been discarded by Yeltsin. Although Putin is a leader with an "unclear" commitment to democracy in the eyes of many in Western political and media circles, his KGB past speaks volumes to Russians. The sole national-level politician who still advocates Western ideals and democracy, Grigory Yavlinsky, has called the situation with respect to the media and freedom "the worst period in the last ten years." The Soviet atmosphere of suspicion and fear is returning to Russia. The very knowledge that a former KGB agent is running the country sends chills down the spine.

Or down some spines. As with Yeltsin, so with Putin: tax collection is state priority No. 1. To fear or not to fear is a question that hinges on whether a Russian has made enough money to dread Putin's tax pillagers or is poor and dispossessed enough to feel spiteful glee when masked tax men break down a wealthy neighbor's door, kick him and his wife to the floor, ransack their belongings, and make off with their passports and financial documents. Yet Russians still steadfastly refuse to file personal tax returns, and businesses continue to flout tax laws (though now perhaps with newfound fear and plans to legalize their affairs in the future). There is talk of granting the tax police ministerial status. Their deeds are glorified in TV police dramas modeled after Cops, and a special academy has been set up to train youngsters for a future in tax collecting—a profession that may be edging out contract killer in popularity among teenagers, with its scope for material gain and license to employ violence against "enemies of the people." And as if the new role of the tax police weren't glorious enough, the Orthodox Church has assigned them a patron saint, thereby investing them with a divine right to plunder. Those who have made money, including the oligarchs, understand that in still largely communalist Russia, property rights are not only not inviolate but could be reversed with cheers from the masses. Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky grasped this and have fled abroad rather than risk litigation and imprisonment; many others who have made fortunes have done the same or are plotting to do so. Oligarchs who suffer dispossession will likely see their property either divided among members of Putin's court or renationalized. The notion that any redistribution of wealth will be fair and just is nonsensical in light of recent history: if redistribution takes place, it will favor those in power.

Average Russians continue to suffer abuse daily at the hands of the militia, the traffic police, and corrupt bureaucrats. The state may try them more than once for a crime. They may be detained without charges for seventy-two hours or held in a tuberculosis-ridden pre-trial detention center for years. Opening a business involves as much paperwork and bribery as ever. The mafiya still extracts dan' from entrepreneurs. The countrywide decay that began during the Yeltsin years continues, with television towers catching fire, nuclear submarines sinking, military aircraft crashing to earth, apartment buildings exploding from leaks in decrepit gas pipes, and entire regions of the country going without heat and electricity in winter months. Thirty-six percent of the population, or 52 million people, live below the subsistence level, set at a dollar a day. (Putin's promised increase in the minimum monthly wage has added $1.79, for a total of $4.74.) The military, despite Putin's pledges to reform it, remains one of the most impoverished segments of society: more than 49 percent of military families live below the poverty line; two thirds of junior officers have no housing; and officers' salaries have declined in real terms by more than 50 percent over the past five years. Putin's actions show his failure to understand that it is the dying economy, not the deteriorated state, that threatens stability and the future of the country. Economic distress and doctrinaire intransigence brought about the fall of the Soviet Union, and they may bring about the fall of Russia: Putin has pledged to restore a "comprehensive system of state regulation of the economy."

Adequate financing of the state sector of the economy would, it appears, require renationalization of the energy industries that were given away at the rigged auctions of 1995. But at least for now Putin has forsworn confrontation and has reached an agreement with most of the oligarchs that will allow them to keep their spoils—a compromise that shows where his interests lie. Buoyed by high world oil prices, the oil industry is still the engine of the economy: it provides a third of all state revenues (despite persistent tax arrears). This lends a shine to Russia's fiscal visage that has prompted some Western observers to irrational exuberance and predictions of a new boom. (Russians, however, now more than ever, prefer to send their capital abroad; since Putin took office, capital flight has increased by 30 percent.) Westerners are right about the energy sector, at least: the Russian government is negotiating a deal with the European Union that would double fuel exports to Europe and assure Western investment in leaking pipelines and decrepit rigs.

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Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 2001; Russia Is Finished - 01.05; Volume 287, No. 5; page 35-52.