Sat, 06 Dec 2003

While Russia slept

Nina L. Khrushcheva Senior Fellow New School University Project Syndicate

Elections in Russia usually somehow signal a political crisis: Boris Yeltsin's re-election as President in 1996, for example, seemed to hold off a communist resurrection -- not by revolution but through the ballot box. Elections to the State Duma (the lower house of Russia's parliament) are normally quieter affairs, and the just completed campaign and Duma elections on Dec. 7 were certainly silent -- deadly silent.

Indeed, so omnipotent is President Vladimir Putin in Russia nowadays that the Duma election would have been scarcely noticed -- by the world and Russia alike -- were it not for the arrest and imprisonment this autumn of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil industry oligarch who dared to put his money behind two liberal parties opposed to Putin.

Khodorkovsky's arrest did not galvanize ordinary Russians, who increasingly see elections as beside the point in their difficult lives. His arrest did, however, shake international confidence in Putin, as well as arouse Russia's other oligarchs and democratic reformers to seriously fear for their freedoms.

The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse, said Edmund Burke in 1771. Putin exercises a power greater than that allowed any other democratically elected leader, and the manner in which he exercises it is now causing serious concern. Lord Acton's phrase about the corrupting effect of power does not yet apply; Burke's warning does.

The presidency that Boris Yeltsin created for himself a decade ago -- fattened when Yeltsin's tanks shelled an unruly Duma in 1993 -- gives Putin astonishing freedom from accountability. Unlike America's or Mexico's president, he need not cajole a congress entrenched behind the ramparts of constitutionally separate powers.

Unlike a British or Spanish prime minister, he cannot be removed by a vote of no confidence. Unlike Germany's Chancellor, he is not shackled to a coalition partner who can prevent him going too far. Unlike Berlusconi in Italy, Lula in Brazil, and Koizumi in Japan, he does not have to face down infighting within his own party.

To the huge power of the Russian presidency Putin adds his own aloof temper and a familiarity, from his KGB years, with the subtle levers of Russia's bureaucracy. None of this is necessarily wrong: Russia's hard times demand a government that can act decisively. But Putin's power is pressing hard against the limits of what is permissible in a democracy.

Yeltsin never spread his fingers into the nooks and crannies of government as comprehensively as Putin. Nothing escapes the eye of the Kremlin -- whether it be which buildings are restored in Saint Petersburg or the appointment of minor Russian envoys abroad. When so much power is concentrated in one place, it is tempting to stifle criticism about how that power is used.

Most complaints about Putin focus on his efforts to silence voices of independent criticism. In taming the oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky -- who balked at accepting his "settlement" whereby Russia's richest men would keep their business empires, no matter how ill-gotten, if they kept out of politics -- Putin did choke the media empires both men used to promote their causes. In a country where the president names the heads of all Russia's state television and radio channels, criticism is not so abundant that any of it can afford to be lost.

But Putin's press policy does not add up to an argument that he ought not to be re-elected next March, when he stands again. Indeed, on the great issues of policy, as distinct from the murky corners of self-interest, Putin can still be seen as a good president.

Abroad, he has drawn Russia into ever closer cooperation with the West: In much of the "war on terror" and the handling of North Korea, his policy parallels that of America; elsewhere, rhetoric about "independence" persists, but the real doubts about who is a reliable partner for the West now point to Schroeder's Germany more than to Putin's Russia.

At home, Putin has mostly done the right things for Russia's economy, leaving his government in office long enough to reap the benefits of consistency. His idea of a "dictatorship of law" satisfies enough Russians to put him solidly in command of the political center.

What is worrying about Putin's rule is his inability to make Russia's government more transparent. All deals are private. Laws appear as if by magic. No one knows if the president ordered Khodorkovsky's arrest or even considered the devastating impact it would inevitably have on investment in Russia. The problem here is that, by keeping political decision-making in the dark, Russia's myriad power factions are never held to account.

For example, what "deal" -- if any -- was struck with Russia's nuclear industry to allow for the continued construction of nuclear plants in Iran? No one knows. Would the military have been so successful in retarding reform if it had to act in the open? In his efforts to "get things done," Putin prefers to deal directly with powerful industries and lobbies, rather than shape laws through a rather tame Duma.

It is the apparent inevitability of Putin's re-election next spring that justifies concern about his way of wielding power. Putin could earn the gratitude of future Russians by coolly re- examining the powers of his office.

Power is best checked by democratically elected institutions -- by a Duma with real power and a judiciary with real teeth -- not by cutting deals with special interests and military/industrial insiders, or by stacking the government with ex-KGB men who can only intimidate, never inform. Putin should recognize that the sheer extent of his presidential power makes it essential that the darkest corners of Kremlin decision-making be exposed to daylight.