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Russia's authoritarian regime 2006
Article added on January 1, 2006

Five years ago, one could still ask the rhetorical question whether the glass is half empty or half full. In early 2006, no doubts remain, the glass is half empty. Vladimir Putin has re-established an "authoritarian democracy" in Russia.

Already in 2003, the so-called St. Petersburg liberal economic reformers including Aleksei Kudrin (Finance Minister), German Graf (Economic Development, Trade Minister )and Anatolii Chubais (the chief executive officer of the Unified Energy System of Russia, the country's electric power monopolist) lost ground to the so-called siloviki, present and former members of the security and military services. Putin himself used to be a KGB spy before heading the KGB successor organization FSB (Federal Security Service) as well as the Security Council.

Finally, on December 27, 2005 Putin's economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, abruptly resigned. He was the Kremlin inner circle's last outspoken critic of policy errors, but relegated to the status of a tolerated court jester with no real influence. According to the Russian news agency Itar-Tass, Illarionov said that, six years ago (in 2000), when he took up his post, he devoted all his work to creating the conditions for increasing economic freedoms in Russia. He concluded, that last year, it had become clear that not only economic policy, but also the Russian economic model itself had changed. In addition, he emphasized that the political regime had changed too. Russia "has ceased to be politically free." According to news reports, a few days before his resignation, Illarionov accused the Russian government of following a "corporatist" model. He was also outspoken on the Yukos scandal and trial, calling it a state sanctioned theft.

Anybody with common sense who has followed Russian politics in recent years has to agree. Putin has constantly undermined the economic and political freedom as well as the independence of the mass media in Russia.

For instance, Putin has de facto nationalized the media conglomerate Media-Most, which includes radio stations, newspapers and the TV station NTW, bringing it under the control of the state-owned gas monopolist Gazprom, the world's largest producer and exporter of gas.

The mock trial of the former Yukos owner and billionaire Chodorkovski proved once more that there is now independent justice in Russia. The expropriation of the formerly richest Russian also showed that private enterprise and private property are not secure, if one should develop political ambitions and become a serious contender in the power struggle. The takeover of Yukos by the state-owned oil-company Rosneft in a cloak-and-dagger operation was reminiscent of Soviet times.

Furthermore, Putin's handling of the war in Chechnya is as poor as ever. People around the globe justly protested against the scandals in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the attempts by the Bush administration to legalize torture. However, the war in Chechnya is much dirtier, but protests in the West against it are almost invisible. Human rights are irrelevant there. Putin sells it as a war against terrorism, and a "world statesman" such as Schröder adopted this argument in a debate in the German parliament (Bundestag) in 2004. Manipulated elections in Chechnya don't seem to bother anybody. Protests against dirty tricks don't go beyond a routine lip service. Even if one rightly considers that the Chechen leaders, insurgents and terrorists bear their share of the burden, Putin's attitude is far from constructive, to say the least.

In today's Russia, Lenin and Stalin are still highly regarded, not only by Communists, and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 - with its secret protocol in which the sovereign states of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania were divided into spheres of influence by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union - has still its defenders even in the Kremlin.

Some of the other shadows over Putin's concept of democracy and rule of law are his friendly ties to Byelorussia and its dictator Lukashenko, the last one in Europe, as well as his open support of the former discredited Ukrainian president Kuchma and his presidential candidate Yanukovych, congratulating Yanukovych on his "victory", before the results were officially announced, ignoring reports of widespread fraud, opposing himself to Yushchenko and the "Orange Revolution".

Who could become the next president in 2008? Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's former chief of staff, was promoted to First Deputy Prime Minister in 2005 by the President. He moved from the Kremlin into the government. The former law professor from Leningrad University is considered part of the St. Petersburg "liberal" faction, although he supported the destruction and re-nationalization of Yukos. Currently, analysts consider Medvedev Putin's favorite crown prince. But at the same time, the President also promoted the former KGB officer and current Minister of Defense, Sergei Ivanov, to the position of Deputy Prime Minister. Ivanov is is a siloviki who knows Putin since the 1970s. He defended hawkish positions in the Chechen war and recommended that the Russian town of Volgograd be renamed Stalingrad. However, according to some media reports, he is considered one of the more moderate and pragmatic siloviki. We may find out more in 2008.

On December 29, 2005, the new Russian government adopted a social and economic program for 2006 to 2008 which, in addition to measures creating a liberal business environment, defines "national-strategic projects", including the oil, gas, arms and aircraft industry as well as the transportation sector and even agriculture. In this context, the nationalization of Yukos can be interpreted as an important step by the state to control the energy sector.

Not only Russia, but Russians as well are in a poor state of health. A Worldbank and WHO report published in December 2005 states that, in 2003, Russian women had a life expectancy of 72 years, but Russian men only one of 58 years. The probability that a man dies between 15 and 60 is a staggering 42.4%. Alcohol is the main source of this problem. If Russia manages to improve its health standards to a Western level, GDP output per capita could be 22% higher in 20 years than today, the report stated. Instead of harassing Chechens, how about improving the health of ordinary Russians, Mr. Putin?

In conclusion, Russia's future remains uncertain. Putin was lucky to profit from higher energy prices. The next president may not be able to count on such an economic boost. Will he strongly re-embrace market reforms, the rule of law, control and cut down the bureaucracy and favor friendly relations with the West, in particular with the European Union, or will he embark on a definitively authoritarian, corporatist and nationalist road?