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The Emperor Putin


Run your finger around the borders of Russia, and you begin to realize what a worrying place the world must seem when viewed from the Kremlin. Ukraine, supposedly the closest and best-loved of Russia’s immediate neighbors, has just biffed its big brother on the nose by electing a West-backed president, Viktor Yushchenko. Three other neighbors or near neighbors of Russia—Belarus, Turkmenistan, and North Korea—are run by dictators whose grasp of reality is open to question. Unstable autocrats run the rest of Central Asia. Georgia and Moldova are crippled by illegal Russian-sponsored secessionist regimes on their soil. Armenia and Azerbaijan teeter on the brink of renewed war. Dialogue with Japan has been hostage for decades to arguments about four disputed islands of negligible value. The Baltic states are the objects of a Russian government hate campaign. Relations with the rest of the European Union are at their chilliest since the cold war. The rise of China, and its imagined designs on the Russian far east, are the long-term worry that keeps the Kremlin awake at night. That leaves Mongolia for comfort.

It takes time and effort to build up a set of problems quite as impressive as that. Probably no year since 1945 has been a particularly good one for Russian foreign policy, but last year must have ranked among the worst since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It ended with the Ukrainian election, which has sent anger and anxiety reverberating through the Russian political establishment. The anger was directed mainly at the United States, blamed with some justification for engineering the defeat of the Russian-backed candidate, Viktor Yanukovych,1 although the real force for change was widespread outrage within Ukraine at early attempts to rig the voting in Yanukovych’s favor, coupled with determined public support for his poisoned challenger, Yushchenko. The anxiety was reserved for Russia’s own regime. If “people power” could change the course of politics in Ukraine, a similar country in so many ways, could it do the same in Russia too? Probably not, even according to Russian liberals, since in Russia the public was more passive and the regime more powerful.2 But it was a shocking precedent all the same.

Events in Ukraine have confirmed Russia’s fears about the recent expansion of NATO and the European Union into Central Europe.3 The Putin regime thinks that the former Communist countries in that region will work against it, using their newfound influence inside the European and Atlantic institutions to draw more countries—especially Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—away from the Russian sphere of influence and into the European one. Janusz Bugajski, in his splendid new survey of Russian foreign policy in the region, Cold Peace, suggests that relations with Central and Eastern Europe are even worse than they might be because Russians have only “paltry information about their Western neighbors [which] fosters hostile stereotypes about the allegedly Russophobic East Europeans.” But if we take “Russophobic” at its literal meaning, which is to say, “frightened of Russia,” and not “hateful toward Russia,” then Russophobia is an emotion felt widely in post-Communist Europe, especially in the Baltics, and of course it shapes policy.

The Central Europeans fear Russia, because Russia has a long history of supporting bad governments as allies and clients, while undermining good ones. As near neighbors of Russia and as past victims of its foreign policies, the Central Europeans will always choose to limit Russian influence. Bringing Ukraine into the European Union is a long-term goal of Polish foreign policy. When the election crisis moved toward its resolution in Kiev, it was President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland and President Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania who rushed in as mediators—not the British, or the French, or the Germans, the usual top dogs of European diplomacy.

But while Russia complains about foreign interference in Ukraine and elsewhere in what it now calls “the post-Soviet space,” it has proved entirely capable of messing things up there by itself. It has tried to make an enemy of Georgia’s new president, Mikhail Saakashvili, by encouraging two separatist regions of Georgia under Russian control, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to intensify their struggle against Saakashvili’s government. It has alienated the Communist government of Moldova, which was pro-Russian until recently, but which has turned to the West after losing patience with Russia’s continued support of secessionists in Transdniestr, the eastern part of Moldova. Russia’s plans for a political union with Belarus are also unraveling. A plan for Belarus to adopt the Russian ruble as its national currency this year has been postponed, and may well be abandoned.

So if, as one Russian official recently claimed, the main aim of Russian foreign policy has always been to ensure “a band of neighborliness all around [Russia’s] borders,” then something in the implementation of that policy has gone very badly wrong indeed.4 Nor can it be said that domestic policy has been going particularly well either. The great economic goal proclaimed by President Putin in his first term, to double the size of Russia’s gross national product by 2010, is now recognized to be more or less out of reach.5 The expropriation of the Yukos oil company, previously controlled by the “oligarch” Mikhail Khodorkovsky but hounded and seized by the Russian state in the name of tax arrears, has cast a long shadow over the business environment. The Yukos affair has depressed the stock market, encouraged more capital flight, and given rise to speculation that Putin has lost control over the clan of fellow KGB men whom he brought in to fill top Kremlin jobs.

Putin did clearly want to bring down Khodorkovsky, proving that even the richest man in Russia could be humbled by the state. Now that Khodorkovsky has been held in jail since October 2003, and is being tried on charges of fraud and tax evasion which carry a potential ten-to-fifteen-year sentence, this objective has been achieved in full. But Putin also said early on that he did not want to see the bankruptcy or collapse of Yukos. And yet it is hard to construe the outcome as anything other than that.6 The prospect of plundering a $40 billion oil company apparently proved too great for his subordinates to resist. The success of this heist invites the question of which other big Russian companies, all of which have sinned through tax avoidance in the past, and many of which were privatized, like Yukos, through the infamous “loans-for-shares” deals in the mid-1990s, will be the next to go.7

As for political reforms, nobody pretends any longer that Russia is on course to become a Western-style democracy—not even Putin’s own ministers.8 Andrew Jack, in the concluding pages of Inside Putin’s Russia, calls Russia’s hollowed-out democracy a “parody” of a political system. As in Soviet times, a single party holds power, but now it impersonates a democracy. One important difference is that Putin, unlike his Soviet predecessors, has been genuinely endorsed by the people. Still, says Jack, the result is

parties without ideas, debates without the most important participants, media without criticism …[and] no institutional framework, no broader political culture to help foster diversity of opinion for the future.

Many Russians call the system a “managed democracy.” Yegor Gaidar, Russia’s first post-Soviet prime minister, has suggested a better term: “closed democracy.” It describes, he says, a system in which opposition is legal in principle, there is no mass repression, elections take place, but “the results …are always a foregone conclusion.”9

Contemplating this catalog of political retrenchment and policy failure, it is impossible not to wonder whether President Putin can still be as secure and as powerful as the West has generally assumed him to be. If he has indeed “lost” Ukraine, which is a plausible reading of the recent presidential election result there, wouldn’t that be so big a reversal for Russian policy that even the president would have to pay some price? If Putin can be defied on Yukos, can he be defied on other things? And if, as could easily be argued, Russia has gained no specific lasting benefits from the pro-American policies and concessions proclaimed by Putin in the two years after September 11, can he emerge undamaged from that adventure too? We should heed the words of Andrei Illarionov, Putin’s long-serving but fiercely independent economic adviser, who was demoted on December 31 after making public criticisms of the Yukos affair, and after giving an outspoken interview to the Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy on December 30 in which he warned that anti-democratic forces were on the rise within the Kremlin. He said that

certain tendencies in our current political and public life cannot leave anyone indifferent, not even economists. These tendencies are linked with the ongoing destruction, I would say amputation of the whole series of civic institutions that are responsible for providing feedback…. These are the mass media, democratic institutions responsible for sending out messages, including messages of distress, crisis, and catastrophes to the public and to the authorities. The amputation of such institutions leads to catastrophic consequences for the country and for the entire public…. If there are no normal, traditional, legal methods of solving the crises then nothing else short of revolution is left.10

The last time I heard noises like this coming out of the Kremlin was in 1996 when the liberals working for then President Boris Yeltsin confronted a hard-line faction led by Alexander Korzhakov, chief of the Kremlin security service. Korzhakov’s team wanted the approaching presidential election postponed or canceled, putting an end to Russian democracy. Yeltsin sacked them and promoted the liberals, under Anatoly Chubais. I doubt very much that Putin would make a corresponding choice now. The men in uniforms are far stronger in his Kremlin, and he is one of them. The point has thus already passed, I fear, at which Illarionov and the few other liberals remaining inside the government can hope to exercise much influence on policy. Public opinion is a last and desperate resort in Russia. Insiders appeal to it only when they have lost the argument in private. Illarionov is, moreover, already identifying himself with the martyrs. The day after his radio interview he paid a visit to the show trial of Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos boss.


In Cold Peace, Bugajski analyzes Russian policy toward the former Soviet bloc and toward the former Communist countries of Central Europe and the Balkans with a single-mindedness that leaves little room for accident or ambiguity. Its appearance could scarcely be better timed, coming as it does in the wake of regime change in Ukraine, a country vital to any Russian “sphere of influence” if one is to exist at all. Ukraine is, as Bugajski says, “the most strategically important country (other than Russia) that emerged from the Soviet Union.” Russians trace the history of their nation back to the tenth- and eleventh-century princes of Kiev. Only after the Mongol invasion of between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries was the state reconstituted with Moscow as its center.

  1. 1

    See, for example, the report on Vladimir Lytvyn’s visit to Washington by Peter Savodnik in this issue.

  2. 2

    See, for example, Boris Kagarlitsky, “Orange Revolution Can’t Happen Here,” Moscow Times, December 28, 2004; and Masha Gessen, “Orange Envy: Why the Kiev Revolt Can’t Happen in Russia,” The New Republic, December 20, 2004.

  3. 3

    There is always something of a nomenclature problem with “Central Europe,” “Eastern Europe,” and where the Baltics fit into both or either. For convenience I stretch “Central Europe” to include all the ex-Communist countries which joined the European Union in 2004 or will join it in 2007: the Baltics, plus Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Romania. “Eastern Europe” embraces Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine. But Russian commentators resist the term “Central Europe,” and prefer “Eastern Europe” for the combined region.

  4. 4

    Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Putin’s special representative for European Union affairs, speaking on RTR (Russian state television), November 27, 2004.

  5. 5

    See “Russian Minister Warns Economic Slowdown May Deepen in 2005,” Prime-TASS (Moscow), December 22, 2004.

  6. 6

    See Dmitry Zhdannikov, “Putin Vows Not to Allow YUKOS Bankruptcy,” Reuters, Moscow, June 17, 2004.

  7. 7

    Yukos’s best oil fields were sold cheaply in December to a shell company under Russian government control. Putin’s own economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, called the deal “the scam of year” (see “Illarionov Sums Up 2004,” RIA Novosti, December 28, 2004). The Yukos assets then passed into the control of Rosneft, a state oil company run by a Putin aide and presumed KGB veteran called Igor Sechin. The government has long planned to merge Rosneft with Gazprom, but it was not immediately clear whether the Yukos assets would be included if that merger now went ahead. The “loans-for-shares” deals in 1996 were an earlier scam by which Russia’s biggest natural resources companies were sold far below their value to Kremlin cronies such as Khodorkovsky who backed Boris Yeltsin’s presidential campaign that year.

  8. 8

    Asked during a visit to London last summer whether Russia’s handling of the Yukos affair met the usual standards of a democratic country, the Russian defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, replied: “You must be talking about your model, your idea of Western democracy, but if Western democracy exists, there should be both Eastern and Southern democracies.” See “Russian Defense Minister on Yukos Affair,” RIA Novosti, July 12, 2004.

  9. 9

    See “Ukraine and Russia: Now What?” in Itogi, No. 51 (445), December 2004.

  10. 10

    BBC Monitoring, “Putin’s Aide Warns of Revolution if Current Situation Persists in Russia,” Ekho Moskvy radio, Moscow, in Russian, 1500 GMT, December 30, 2004.

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