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The Truth About Putin and Medvedev

As for public health, the life expectancy for Russian men is less than fifty-nine years (on par with underdeveloped African countries), in large part because of the rise in smoking and alcohol abuse (Russia has an estimated 2.5 million alcoholics), as well traffic fatalities (a 60 percent increase since 2000). According to Russian government statistics cited in the report, violent crime also rose by 170 percent between 2000 and 2006. And Russia’s health care system is in crisis. Because of insufficient funds, poorly equipped hospitals, shortages of medicines, and widespread bribe-taking for medical services, health care of any reasonable quality is beyond the reach of most Russians. (This is confirmed by the World Health Organization, which in 2007 ranked health care in Russia 130th out of 190 countries, below Bolivia and Guyana.)

Meanwhile, the authors add, the quality of Russia’s education is declining, affordable housing is scarce, and the pension system is headed for a collapse, with the population aging and the deficit in the pension fund growing swiftly. Because Russia’s pension system is based on employee contributions, and the ratio of workers to pensioners in Russia today is only 1.7 to 1—in comparison to more than three workers per pensioner in the United States—average pensions are only about 4,000 rubles ($160) a month.

In 2005 the Putin government made some attempt to address the need for social reforms by introducing so-called National Projects, which allocated money for improving health care, education, housing, and agriculture. But the results of the highly publicized program, headed by none other than Dmitry Medvedev, have been meager. As Nemtsov and Milov put it: “In essence the ‘national projects’ represent the replacement of systematic reform by random, one-off, modest injections of cash which do not really solve anything.”

A particularly grave failure of Putin’s leadership has been the decline in the rule of law and respect for human rights. With the exception of courts at the local levels, the country’s judges are entirely subordinate to those in political power. Instead of protecting civil rights, law enforcement agencies and courts use the law to advance the financial interests of powerful political clans or well-connected companies. This was the case with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, owner of the oil concern Yukos, who was arrested in 2003 for tax evasion and is still in prison. According to the report, after Yukos assets were acquired by the state-controlled company Rosneft, some of the tax claims against Khodorkovsky were dismissed by the courts. This so-called “tax terrorism” is widely used by the authorities to take over property from private owners and redistribute it to Kremlin insiders. In Khodorkovsky’s case, an additional motive for suppressing him was his funding of a new democratic party.

In a very recent example of such Kremlin tactics, an employee of British Petroleum’s Russian oil venture, TNK-BP, was arrested (along with his brother) on charges of industrial espionage. This was followed by a raid on TNK-BP’s Moscow headquarters and a police investigation of alleged tax evasion by BP. Many assume that these maneuvers are part of a Kremlin-inspired campaign to take over assets of the company and transfer them to Gazprom.

The legal system is also an effective instrument for silencing Kremlin critics. Last December, the FSB ordered the deportation of Moldovan journalist Natalia Morar, a Moscow resident—married to a Russian—who was writing a series of articles for The New Times, a small independent newsweekly, about election fraud and corruption. On March 3, Maxim Reznik, the head of the St. Petersburg chapter of the liberal party Yabloko and an outspoken critic of the Kremlin, was arrested as he left his office, where he had been looking into reports of election fraud. Reznik, who was kept in isolation for almost three weeks before being released, was charged with assaulting a policeman, a and could face up to five years in prison. Reznik’s colleagues say he was detained because he was the chief organizer of a conference of liberal democrats that was held in St. Petersburg on April 5. On March 24, the FSB also arrested Oleg Kochin, chairman of the Penza District branch of Yabloko and chief editor of the opposition newspaper Lubimaya Gazeta. He was charged with extortion, for which no evidence has been presented.

Even more alarming, as Nemtsov and Milov write, is the violence against journalists who report critically about the Kremlin. (In 2007, according to the Glasnost Defense Foundation, seventy-five journalists were physically attacked and eight killed.) Not a single recent murder of a journalist, including the 2006 shooting of Anna Politkovskaya, has been solved.3

A central question, in view of this grim picture of Russia’s political and economic situation, is whether there can be any positive changes after Medvedev assumes the presidency in early May. Although the forty-two-year-old Medvedev does not have a KGB background, he has been a close protégé of Putin for many years and is a direct product and beneficiary of Putin’s system, which is dominated by former and current security and intelligence officers, the so-called siloviki. According to the Moscow Times, over 75 percent of the country’s leaders have links to the KGB or its successor agencies, the FSB and the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). Unlike during the Soviet era, when the ruling Communist Party had firm control over the KGB, the FSB is to a large extent its own master, operating with impunity throughout the country. Not even Putin, with all of his KGB credentials, has been able to prevent factions among the siloviki from arresting one another’s associates as they engage in a struggle for assets and power. It is doubtful that Medvedev will do much better.

More to the point, Putin, as Medvedev’s prime minister, will continue to have a powerful influence on decision-making in Russia. The presidential administration is now filled with Putin appointees, who are unlikely to shift their loyalties to Medvedev, at least until they see how the situation evolves over the next year or two. And Putin, as prime minister, will be in charge of the entire national economy. Although the Russian constitution grants authority to the president to dismiss a prime minister (as Yeltsin did often), he must, in order to appoint a replacement, get approval from the Duma, which is dominated by Putin loyalists. Putin’s acceptance, on April 15, of the leadership of the United Russia Party, which holds a 70 percent majority in the Duma, means that it would be almost impossible for Medvedev to get rid of Putin (even if he wanted to) or to pass legislative initiatives that Putin opposes.

There has been some talk about Medvedev’s relative liberalism, but it would be risky politically for him to attempt reforms such as weakening state controls on the press and on the economy or reining in the security police. Although such changes could hugely benefit Russia’s future development, Medvedev would offend too many powerful people and interests. Nor is he likely to encourage a more flexible policy toward the West. As Milov told me:

Medvedev is a representative of a new generation of Russian bureaucrats: they listen to Western rock music, speak foreign languages, wear Brioni suits. But deep inside they are strong Russian national conservatives…. They buy the advantages of Western civilization but they do not buy its values. They are generally afraid of the West as a competing system.

Nemtsov and Milov urge their readers to take the situation into their own hands and call the current regime to account. But how? The Kremlin’s domination of the mass media has made it virtually impossible for democratic opposition candidates to get elected to the Duma or to run for the presidency. There are only three truly independent daily newspapers in Russia—Novaya Gazeta, Kommersant, and Vedomosti—and together they have a minuscule circulation. Aside from the courageous and provocative radio station Ekho Moskvy, most Russian broadcasters stick to the Kremlin line. And television, which is enormously popular in Russia, is almost completely controlled by the government and used extensively as an instrument of propaganda. The authorities still haven’t managed to censor the Internet (although they seem to be trying) but less than 20 percent of adult Russians (and that is probably an inflated estimate) regularly go on line.

Russia’s restrictive electoral procedures make the situation even worse. To be in the Duma, a candidate’s party has to win over 7.6 percent of the total vote. And in order to get on the presidential ballot, a candidate whose party is not represented in the Duma has to collect two million signatures after being nominated. Vladimir Bukovsky, the former Soviet dissident who spent years in the Gulag and was deported from the country in 1976, managed to get through the rigorous nomination process (requiring hundreds of notarized signatures) in December 2007 and was supported by the Yabloko party, which is led by Grigory Yavlinsky, a liberal economist who led reforms in the 1990s. But the election commission denied him registration as a presidential candidate because he has dual Russian and British citizenship and had not resided in Russia for the required previous ten years.

With no constitutional way of changing the government, liberals have reverted to protests and street demonstrations, but authorities use any excuse to forcefully intervene and make arrests. The Putinites do not worry about the impression that such tactics make upon the West. They are confident that Russia’s enormous energy reserves will ensure its great power status, and they have observed that Western leaders—with the exception of German Chancellor Angela Merkel—have responded feebly to the Putin administration’s blatant abuse of human rights.

The West can probably do little to influence Russia’s political future anyway. In the end, a real change in the country will have to come from Russians themselves. And they may not be motivated to make that change unless a crisis discredits the current leadership. As Nemtsov told me in March, Putin made an invisible contract with the Russian people by which they tolerate corruption, mismanagement, crime, and constraints on the mass media so long as they have buying power and continue to live better than they did in the Yeltsin era. But if the economy falters, that contract could be broken. People will remember some of the bad things that happened while Putin was president, such as the Kursk submarine accident, in which many Russian sailors died because of carelessness, and the government’s brutal and inept handling of the hostage crisis in Beslan. They might then demand accountability. “Reforms only happen when the money runs out,” Nemtsov said.

How likely is it that Russia will face serious economic problems? Although high oil prices are ensuring a steady flow of money into the state treasury, there have been signs of economic vulnerability. The cost of living is rising sharply, with inflation reaching 12.6 percent in January 2008. Owing partly to lax lending standards, consumer and corporate credit is increasing rapidly—by 50 percent a year. A surge in external borrowing by Russian banks to fund credit expansion has aroused concerns about a crisis of liquidity in the banking system if access to foreign borrowing is curtailed. Moreover, according to Anatoly Chubais, Russia’s current account surplus is declining to the point where it could disappear in just a couple of years. There has been a marked slowdown in the growth of Russia’s oil output, resulting from the failure to invest in oil extracting capacity. Income from oil and gas may not be sufficient to cover future imports.

These developments should be a cause of concern for the Kremlin. Three years ago, thousands of angry Russian pensioners staged protests throughout the country after the government, in an effort to save money, passed a law replacing their social benefits, such as rent subsidies and free transportation and medicine, with monthly cash payments that many felt were inadequate. If Russians were to take to the streets in large numbers to protest against their political leaders, as they did in August 1991, would liberal democrats be prepared to offer something new? They would have to unite their forces and come up with a program that offers a real alternative to the current regime in Russia; and they would have to find ways of communicating their ideas to the population at large.

Disagreements and personal disputes among the opposition have stood in the way of such unifying action. The former chess champion Garry Kasparov, who futilely attempted a run for the Russian presidency, estranged other democrats by joining in a coalition with Eduard Limonov, head of the National Bolshevik Party and a fervent Russian nationalist. Nemtsov and Yavlinsky, the Yabloko leader, have been at odds over Nemtsov’s close relationship with Chubais, whom Yavlinsky considers an opportunist for having long cooperated closely with the Kremlin.

What is needed now, some Russian democrats say, are young leaders who carry no political baggage from the 1990s and could bring opposition groups together. It is thus a hopeful sign that Vladimir Milov recently announced his decision to enter politics. As the well-informed Moscow journalist Yevgenia Albats told me, Milov combines broad experience in the energy sector of the economy with a “Western understanding of the way democracy should work.” Milov was a participant, along with Nemtsov, in the conference of Russian oppositionists that took place in St. Petersburg on April 5, the first serious step in years to unite democrats of all different parties and groups. (Yabloko’s Maxim Reznik was not able to open the conference because he was called for an interrogation relating to the bogus charges of assault against him, but he was able later to join the group and endorse its platform.)

Their goal right now, as Nemtsov explained to me after the conference ended, is not to establish a new political party, because that would involve an official registration process and enable the Kremlin to thwart the efforts of the democrats. Instead, they plan to organize a broad coalition of liberal democratic forces, patterned after the Polish Solidarity movement. The resolution adopted by the conference was a rallying call for liberals to unite with the common aim of creating a free and democratic Russia.

Nemtsov sees Milov, who wrote the first draft of the resolution, as the possible future “ideological leader” of their movement. Preparations are now underway for a series of regional conferences and a large congress of democratic forces in the autumn of this year. It will, I was told, attempt to enlist the support of a broader segment of the Russian population, whose voices of dissatisfaction with the current regime have not been heard.

When the Marquis de Custine traveled around Russia in 1839, he observed in his diary: “Russia is a nation of mutes; some magician has changed sixty million men into automatons.” Some Russians say that their compatriots have become once again a “nation of mutes,” who sit glued to the state-dominated television absorbing the continuous propaganda glorifying their leaders. Perhaps. But as one Russian liberal commented recently, “nations are mute only for a time. Sooner or later the day of discussion arises.”

—April 17, 2008

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    As for Putin’s assertion that peace had been restored in Chechnya, according to the US State Department’s Human Rights Report for 2007, there is still widespread instability in Chechnya and the North Caucasus region. Separatist and Islamist insurgency, often manifested in acts of terrorism, continues to spread. In trying to quell the insurgency, both federal and local security forces engage extensively in human rights abuses, including torture and summary executions.

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