“This book is about Vladimir Putin,” says Anna Politkovskaya, a leading Russian journalist, “but not, as he is normally viewed in the West, seen through rose-coloured glasses.” Which may seem a puzzling way to start. There is a lot of indifference toward Putin in the West. There is a lot of disappointment. But there is not much admiration, especially now that Putin’s strongest ally among European politicians, Gerhard Schroeder, has gone as chancellor of Germany—and has taken a job on Putin’s payroll as chairman of a pipeline company.
Most Western governments would probably agree by now with the gloomy verdict of Putin’s long-serving economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, who resigned on December 27, saying that he had joined Putin’s team in 2000 “to pursue an economic policy of broadening economic freedoms,” but that Russia had “essentially ceased pursuing that policy a minimum of two and a half years ago.” It was “difficult, if not effectively impossible,” he said, to identify any decision taken in 2004 and 2005 which had not reduced “economic freedoms, indeed political freedoms too.” He added that Russia’s reassertion of state control over its oil industry, which had included the renationalization of two big producers, Yuganskneftgas (the main production arm of the Yukos group) and Sibneft, was damaging the economy, even though the damage was masked for the moment by high oil prices. The Kremlin’s policy, he said, was that “energy could and should be used as a political weapon.”
As if to bear out Illarionov’s point about political freedoms, on the day of his resignation, the upper house of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council, approved a bill curtailing the rights of nongovernmental organizations in Russia. Ostensibly, this was for fear that they might be used as vehicles for terrorism or subversion. The law was slightly softened after fierce foreign and domestic criticism of a first draft, but it still gave Russian officials “an unprecedented level of discretion in deciding what projects, or even parts of NGO projects, comply with Russia’s national interest,” said Human Rights Watch, and would allow them to close NGOs which disobeyed. The law closes off the possibility that NGOs might ever serve as rallying points for effective political opposition in Russia, as they did before democratic revolutions in recent years in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine. Few people think Russia could face a similar revolution anytime soon. But it is part of Putin’s character to want to bring any independent organization, anywhere on the Russian political landscape, within the scope of his control, just in case.
And as if to bear out Illarionov’s warnings on energy, Russia also chose the holiday season to use energy as a political weapon against Ukraine. Gazprom, Russia’s state-run gas monopoly, raised fourfold its price for gas exported to Ukraine, then shut off supplies on January 1 when Ukraine refused to pay. The aim was apparently to undermine Ukraine’s…
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