(4) McFaul on Putin
(4) McFaul on Putin
The Associated Press reports that yet another opposition political activist has been sent to the loony bin in neo-Soviet Russia:
A Russian opposition activist was committed to a psychiatric hospital before government protests, supporters said Friday – the latest in a series of incidents suggesting a punitive Soviet-era practice is being revived. Artem Basyrov, 20, was detained by two plainclothes officers and ordered held in a hospital in the central region of Mari El on Nov. 23, a day before a planned demonstration, said Alexander Averin, of the opposition National Bolshevik Party. The party is part of the Other Russia coalition, which organized the so-called “Dissenters Marches” around Russia. Basyrov had run for the local legislature as an Other Russia candidate.
A local psychiatric board agreed with police, who alleged that said Basyrov had assaulted a girl, and concluded he was suffering from some mental illness. Basyrov was finally transferred from an isolation ward and allowed to have visitors on Thursday, said Mikhail Klyuzhev, a National Bolshevik member from the city of Yoshkar-Ola. Basyrov was still being held in the hospital Friday. Klyuzhev called the allegations “idiocy.”
“It’s all part of the hysteria before the elections,” he said. Russia held its parliamentary vote Dec. 2, and will hold its presidential contest in March. Prosecutors and other officials in Mari El could not be immediately reached for comment. Supporters said Basyrov did not appear to have been mistreated. Another psychiatric board was slated to review Basyrov’s case at the end of the month, Klyuzhev said. His case is the latest example of journalists or opposition activists being involuntarily committed to psychiatric hospitals. During the Soviet era, dissidents were frequently committed as punishment for protesting Soviet policies.
Last week, Reporters Without Borders said Andrei Novikov, a reporter for a news service connected with Chechen separatist government, had been released after nine months in a psychiatric hospital. This summer, Larisa Arap, an Other Russia activist and journalist, spent six weeks in a psychiatric clinic; supporters said it was punishment for her critical reporting. The Global Initiative on Psychiatry, a Dutch watchdog group, says psychiatry continues to be used for punitive, political purposes in Russia.
Writing in the Washington Post Andrei Illarionov, who was a senior economic adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin from 2000 to 2005 and now serves as a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and president of the Institute of Economic Analysis, condemns the Bush administration’s shameful cowardliness on Russia. If the U.S. Secretary of State cares about her legacy, she’d better take heed but quick, or she’ll be this century’s version of Neville Chamberlain:
For the past few months, the official Russian media have shown little warmth for the Bush administration. Taking their cue from the Kremlin, the Russian press has been happy to denounce Washington when it criticized, even very cautiously, authoritarian actions. But Washington’s own cold shoulder turned into a warm embrace this week when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice openly endorsed President Vladimir Putin’s anointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and effectively undercut her past statements urging Russia to adopt a more democratic course and to hold truly competitive elections.
Rice commended Medvedev, Russia’s first deputy prime minister, as a “very intelligent person” and a politician “of another generation.” For Putin and the Russian siloviki (secret police operatives) who have consolidated power and are maneuvering to ensure that the regime retains control via an undemocratic succession, Rice’s remarks could not have been better timed. Medvedev has not begun campaigning. In fact, Medvedev is not even an official candidate in the March presidential election — he has yet to give his nomination papers to the Central Electoral Commission.
So what prompted Rice to preempt the judgment of the Russian people? Why such a rush to endorse Putin’s man? Rice may well have formed a positive impression of Medvedev in recent years, but why express it now, right after Putin’s announcement? Other public praise has come from such esteemed men as the Chechen thug-dictator Ramzan Kadyrov. Why is the U.S. secretary of state joining his company?
Rice’s endorsement is all the more breathtaking considering it comes in the wake of a parliamentary election that was full of heavy-handed intimidation tactics and that European human rights observers called the dirtiest election yet in the post-Soviet period. “The State Duma election in the Russian Federation on the 2nd December 2007 was not fair and failed to meet many [Organization for Security and Cooperation] and Council of Europe commitments and standards for democratic elections,” the joint observer mission declared after the polls closed.
Yes, Rice has said she hopes the time will come when Russia will have “a presidential election where there is a realistic chance for a really contested election.” But praising the Kremlin’s candidate won’t help bring such an election to fruition. And if she saw an appropriate occasion to express concern about the state of Russian democracy, why not talk about all candidates for the presidency?
Why not support instead a democratic presidential hopeful, such as the Other Russia coalition leader Garry Kasparov? Kasparov was recently jailed because he participated in a peaceful demonstration for democracy. Putin’s government has blocked Kasparov from running for president next year and opposition Web sites have been attacked, yet Rice complements Medvedev and cites his work “to wire the country with Internet.” Is Kasparov, the reigning world chess champion for 15 years, not intelligent enough for Rice?
Why didn’t Rice mention Vladimir Ryzhkov, another democratic politician? This week, Ryzhkov, one of democracy’s most outspoken defenders, was thrown out of the Duma, where he had served four consecutive terms, when his Republican party, one of the oldest in Russia, was closed down by Medvedev’s colleagues. I do not recall Medvedev arguing or acting, either in his current office or as head of the presidential administration, in defense of the rights of Ryzhkov, Kasparov or their organizations to participate in a “really contested election” — whether parliamentary or presidential.
But Rice is dead silent about democratic candidates. It is striking that while American officials advocate democracy and call for competitive elections, their practical actions pull in the opposite direction. Rice’s reassurances lend comfort not to those fighting for democracy but to those who would destroy it, not to victims of persecution in Russia but to their persecutors.
This duplicitous game has real consequences. Rice’s endorsement of Medvedev is interpreted in the Kremlin as carte blanche for an undemocratic succession.
What Rice and German Chancellor Angela Merkel — who has indicated that she “could work well with” Medvedev — are expressing is their acceptance of the underhanded political tactics of the siloviki regime. Having issued their endorsements ahead of the election, they are saying publicly that for them, Putin’s wishes count for much more than all the people’s ballots.
The March presidential election is being buried — by ex-Soviet secret police operatives and by Western leaders who have already accepted an illegitimate heir to the Russian throne.
Writing in the Moscow Times, columnist Georgy Bovt takes on the Shvartsman affair:
The recent interview in Kommersant with Oleg Shvartsman, head of the little-known FinansGroup, caused quite a storm.
Shvartsman said the firm operated on behalf of the siloviki headed up by Kremlin deputy chief of staff Igor Sechin. This group conducts “velvet reprivatization,” which means raiding oligarchs’ assets with the goal of expropriating them. Among those mentioned as FinansGroup partners were a Russian venture capital company and Israeli finance group Tamir Fishman, both of which are involved in major projects involving an enormous amount of money.
Following the article’s publication, the Tamir Fishman group and military brass immediately suspended relations with FinansGroup. Shvartsman responded quickly by saying that Kommersant had gotten it wrong and that the editing of his interview led to some distortion of the facts. People who saw him before his public refutation on an Ekho Moskvy radio show said he looked nervous and frightened and arrived at the station carrying a prepared text.
The picture Shvartsman painted of shady dealings underscores the current trend among Russian business to have a “patron” in the security services protecting their interests. And for their part, the security services feel they have control over the country’s economy. Even if Shvartsman threw a single party for siloviki veterans and invited General Valentin Varennikov, a former Soviet deputy defense minister who is famous for his role in the putsch attempt against Gorbachev in 1991, he would have bragging rights to say, “I have influential friends at the upper levels of the security services.”
You can develop informal but good connections from these kinds of meetings, which sometimes lead to business deals worth billions of dollars. Russian businesses of every stripe now look for “protection” from the security services, which in turn are also looking to provide their own form of “services” to various commercial clients.
But what motivated Shvartsman to say these things in the first place? He’s not such a fool as to drop Sechin’s name and the names of various people close to the Kremlin without a definite purpose in mind.
One possible explanation is that Shvartsman was trying to inflate his own importance in the hopes of landing a major contract. That might be the case, but in today’s Russia, the opposite rule usually applies: The more secrecy is maintained, the easier it is to strike a deal.
Another possible scenario: Executives within a major conglomerate hire an operative like Shvartsman to gather a packet of the company’s shares and securities, and then turn a profit with them by using various illegal transactions. In order to carry out his task, the operative is given access to all of the company’s deepest financial secrets. He becomes privy to information so sensitive, that were it divulged, it could destroy the reputations or the fortunes of those who hired him.
At the same time, the operative keeps a low profile and is not known to anyone outside his immediate circle. Once he completes his task, if he and the inside information he holds somehow becomes a liability to those who hired him, he is at risk of falling victim to an “unfortunate accident.” His name would appear publicly only once — in the crime section of the paper or in the obituaries.
According to this logic, Shvartsman gave the interview to avoid any “unpleasantness” in the future. Or else he simply wanted to extricate himself safely from the deal, which was either nearing its end or had gone sour for some reason.
These are just some of the possible explanations, however, and they are purely hypothetical. So much of Russian business and politics is bizarre and unexplainable, and the Shvartsman affair is just one more manifestation of this.
Writing in the Moscow Times, Michael McFaul, a Hoover fellow, professor of political science at Stanford University and a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, gives his take on the Putin years:
For the last eight years of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, friends of mine who either worked for or were simply sympathetic to the Kremlin have argued at various times that Russia was a “managed” democracy, a “sovereign” democracy or an autocracy like China on the long road to democracy via the autocratic-modernizer path. Western observers of Russian internal developments, including the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have echoed this third argument, emphasizing that Russia’s transition from communism to democracy would be a long one but that it is nonetheless under way.
My response has been twofold. First, these “special” forms of democracy are just camouflage for anti-democratic actions. To be sure, there are many forms of democratic rule around the world, and the U.S. system, incidentally, is by no means the most democratic form of government. But all democracies share a few fundamental features, including first and foremost competition in elections for national office and some institutional constraints on those in elected office. By these simple measures, Russia is clearly less democratic today than at the beginning of Putin’s time in office.
Second, the long road to democracy is not some inevitable course of history that all countries follow. Rather, real human beings take actions to either impede or promote democratic practices. Democracy — or its absence — is not made by economic, cultural or historical determinants. Rather, democrats make democracy, and autocrats prevent it.
Motivated by the centrality of individual action, I have pushed back to my Putin supporters with the rhetorical question: Name me one Putin policy or decision over the last eight years that has made the political system more democratic? Some name the 13 percent flat tax, but this reform was about economic policy, not governance. Moreover, many might ask if it is democratic when billionaires pay the same tax rate as factory workers.
Others cite the reform of the electoral law for the State Duma, which theoretically could have been a democratic reform since we know that electoral systems based on proportional representation stimulate party development. In reality, however, the results of the last parliamentary elections demonstrated that an electoral mandate for Putin — not the development of political parties — was the goal of electoral law reform. Perhaps most absurd, earlier this month some tried to portray the arrest of opposition leader Garry Kasparov as an example of the rule of law, since he did “break the law.” I was not convinced by these and other examples of Putin’s supposed democratic reforms.
As of Monday, however, I now stand corrected. By committing to stepping down as president by naming a successor, Putin has taken a small but important step toward democratization. Since December 1993, political forces of all ideological persuasions have acquiesced to the political rules of the game spelled out in the Constitution. Putin’s decision to continue to adhere to these rules will make it more costly for future leaders to transgress them.
Of course, the reason Putin can feel secure in anointing Dmitry Medvedev as his successor is that Putin and his team have so weakened all other centers of political power. Could Medvedev win a competitive election campaign against candidates with financial resources, access to national television and the ability to win support from regional leaders? We will never know. And this changing of the guard is more like the strange 1999-2000 transition from Yeltsin to Putin than a genuine change of government through the electoral process. U.S. political scientist Adam Przeworski once defined democracy as a system of government in which incumbents lose elections. That is unlikely to be the case in March. Finally, the fact that everyone is already convinced that Medvedev will be the next president — four months before any votes have been cast — underscores just how undemocratic the Russian political system has become.
Nonetheless, the process of changing leaders now under way in Russia is more democratic than many alternatives. Perhaps most important, this process leaves open the possibility of unintended consequences sometime in the future, including power struggles between the president and the government, or between the president and a new presidential team that has an appreciation for the positive consequences of competition, whether it is in the marketplace or the political arena. But let’s not get too excited. A quarter century ago, Kremlin watchers all got worked up about the fact that the new general secretary, Yury Andropov, listened to jazz. Similarly, when Medvedev dons a black leather jacket or listens to Deep Purple, this hardly makes him democratic.
That being said, however, it is a positive sign that Russia will have two leaders instead of one and that the government will be guided by constitutional rules. So, congratulations President Putin for your democratic move! May it be the first of many — intended or otherwise.
Here’s what the MT itself says about Putin in a recent editorial:
Dmitry Medvedev’s announcement that President Vladimir Putin would be his choice for prime minister if he became president should have surprised no one. At the beginning of October, Putin himself said the idea of becoming prime minister was “entirely realistic.” The stage was set. In a broader sense, the development is no surprise because it adheres to the Kremlin’s record of ignoring the form and spirit of Russia’s tentative democratic system to serve its own prerogatives.
Putin inherited from Boris Yeltsin what has been aptly described as a “superpresidential” Constitution, providing the president with the lion’s share of power.
Putin has since demonstrated that he did not think that was enough. Some cases in point:
• Putin has assumed the power to appoint and dismiss governors — and to dissolve regional legislatures if they disagree with his choice of governors. Regional budgetary powers and resources have been reduced to the point that, even if the regions could make their own decisions, they would have difficulty funding them. The concept of federalism has been undermined so much that it seems ludicrous to continue using the term.
• The State Duma has been reduced to a mere rubber stamp wielded by the Kremlin. Putin’s administration has stifled real input from the legislative branch by creating pocket parties to undermine opposition support, altering election laws to make it more difficult for opposition parties to win seats, and using its own resources to provide its favorites with every advantage.
• Despite insisting on the need for a strong party system, Putin has turned the “party of power,” United Russia, into the “party of Putin.” The importance of parties is so low that Putin did not even have to join one to become United Russia’s only national candidate for the Duma elections.
• The Kremlin has managed to subvert the media’s ability to act as a monitor and check on state power by taking over the national television channels and passing laws that use the guise of fighting extremism to clamp down on the coverage of other media outlets.
The list could go on. Putin and his Kremlin have changed the content of the country’s political system to the point that the way it operates in practice bears little resemblance to its written, constitutional form.
Turning the prime minister’s office into a vehicle allowing him to continue to exert this control would be true to form. Despite the lip service Putin has paid to observing both the letter and spirit of the law, Putin has spent the last eight years managing democracy to bolster and defend the prerogatives of his own power.
Other Russia reports on the takeover of the Live Journal (Zhe Zhe) Russian blog hosting site:
In the culminating moment of vote counting after the Parliamentary election, users of Russia’s internet was buzzing with a less sensational news item. A Russian company named “SUP Fabrik” bought out the popular LiveJournal blog service from the American Six Apart. For those people not up-to-date on their internet-socializing, in translation “from Albanian to Russian,” this means that from now on, the possibilities for censorship are growing. Though perhaps currently theoretical, the idea of pressure on dissident thinking in cyberspace is completely realistic.
True, the right for development and operation of the Russian segment of LiveJournal was bought out by the Russian businessmen in October of the past year. Even then, this summoned a negative reaction from some users. Fortunately, the more alarming predictions regarding censorship on LiveJournal haven’t proven true. The project was led Anton Nosik, a liberal-minded journalist and famed personality of the Russian internet. The SUP Fabrik company was formed by financier Aleksanr Mamut and Andrew Paulson.
Meanwhile, both before and after SUP’s arrival, the Russian-language segment of LiveJournal continued to expand by leaps and bounds. Today, more than one million bloggers and their communities have websites hosted by the service. It would seem a huge achievement for Russia, not so advanced in terms of the proliferation of high technologies! However, if you look closer at the popularity of Russian LiveJournal, you begin to discover that many of the authors set up blogs out of something other than leisurely idleness.
If in the West the majority of blogs are something like electronic diaries along the lines of “I woke up at seven in the morning, walked the dog, fed my parrot,” then in Russia, LiveJournal became in its own way the sole uncensored and practically free platform for the expression of political views and debates between opponents. Since the “Duma isn’t a place for discussion,” [As Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov recently announced] the once legible newspapers turned into “Putin and boobs,” and the television into “bleak dreck,” then only the internet remains. That’s why blogs were set up by not only the jeering “authors” and “low-lifes,” but by the best Russian journalists, opposition politicians, and leaders of youth-movements that don’t fit into the procrustean “us or them” stock. Incidentally, since such a racket was started, soon the Kremlin youth and their brains – the Kremlin propagandists, just had to start their own electronic journals. For some years now, they have tried to gather a high relative weight in cyberspace, but so far to no avail!
In the beginning, those with nationalistic views – from common skinheads to hard ideologues – seemed to dominate among LiveJournal’s political authors. Which, incidentally, hardly worried the powers that be, even as the blogs published just about anything: from fascist propaganda to video-clips of guest-workers and international student being beaten. The situation fundamentally changed only when the liberal, discontented opposition, pushed out of the political sphere, appeared on LiveJournal. They soon started to garner the majority of votes in various internet-polls, [and the authorities began to worry], since this audience wasn’t so “socially close!” Then, the clear heads started to materialize the first ideas: to take control of the virtual space, and submerge the opposition into a total information vacuum!
Naturally, we can’t confirm that this latest acquisition by SUP…is part of an artful chekist plan. In any case, for now LiveJournal Inc. will retain American jurisdiction, and will continue operations from San Francisco. Commenting on the outcomes of the work of SUP in Russia, Chris Alden, the chairman of Six Apart’s board, said that in the past year, SUP and SixApart worked in close collaboration on developing assets, and that the number of Russian-speaking users doubled over this period. “We have been impressed by the expertise and enthusiasm that SUP has brought to LiveJournal in Russia. They’ve introduced new features, nearly doubled the number of users, invested in key product enhancements, and have done justice to one of the most innovative online social networks in the world.”
Russian representatives of SUP assured the community that changes in operations will be minimal. They will be aimed at the establishment of transparent and clear principles regarding communication and consulting on important questions. One of the central innovations will be the creation of an independent supervisory board, which will consist of industry experts and two members of the LiveJournal community, chosen by users. LiveJournal founder Brad Fitzpatrick has already agreed to work with the board. Still, many Russian bloggers rushed to express their concerns about the buyout. They pointed to the significant timing – on the day of Parliamentary elections, and on the eve of the Russian presidential campaign. “We have been sold. We have been handed over. With all the garbage. And even you. Here we had at least some kind of freedom. All this is just too obvious. What, you were being too strong an eyesore on LiveJournal, yeah?” – writes one of the popular authors.
“Those Russians who value freedom of expression and thought have nothing more to wait for here,” echoes a second writer. “Here they’ve already instituted a snitching service on the mind-criminals, and soon Putin’s Red Guard and commissars will be sitting under every button, ensuring guidelines, and checking the content for conformity. They haven’t splurged on LiveJournal to allow Russian citizens the freedom to discuss whichever topics they want in whatever manner they choose.”
“I am far removed from politics,” writes a third. “My feelings about this news are roughly like this. There were some people sitting in a cozy café, say, in Nice, socializing about their own something, showing photographs. And here all of a sudden it turns out, that their talks and photographs are very interesting to extremely unsympathetic people. And to take control of this café and all of these discussions and photographs is so important to these people, that they pay millions of dollars. As a businessman I understand this, but as a user of LJ, this attention makes me tense.”
“First of all, LiveJournal can now be registered as a Russian mass-media, with all the resulting consequences. Even if this isn’t done, one way or another, the owner of the Russian company will from now on be obliged, at the request of the law-enforcement agencies, to open friends-only entries or freeze journals. I am certain, that this tactic will already be in full swing during the coming elections in a few months. Most LiveJournal users probably have nothing to fear from the Russian procuracy, but the principle of transparency isn’t thrilling,” a fourth blogger sums up.
During the recent arrests of Other Russia activists in the run-up to the November Dissenters’ Marches, and State Duma elections, it came to light that law-enforcement officers already actively read LiveJournal. Thus, among the questions posed to the detained activists were: “Is it true that *** is the nickname of your LiveJournal?” “Which other users do you actively communicate and coordinate actions with? Who’s hiding behind the ***, *** and *** nicknames? Do you know the real names of these people?” Internet users are also familiar with the first cases of criminal prosecution for posts and even for comments left on LiveJournal. The most odious of them is the so-called “Savva Terentyev affair,” galvanized in conjunction with a blogger from the Komi Republic. The blogger posted, and even rescinded a joking comment, that “the unjust cops should be incinerated on Stefanov Square.”
In short, the situation with LiveJournal from now on is reminiscent of the situation with the REN-TV television channel, and with the “Ekho Moskvy” (Echo of Moscow) radio station. For now there are no indications that the owner, in this case “SUP,” is plotting anything against Russia’s bloggers. Just like Gazprom [which owns Ekho Moskvy] isn’t yet pressuring its nonconformist radio station. But the theoretical capability of that Sword of Damocles, hanging over the last island of freedom, worries me in and of itself. Since, as is well known, in politics it’s the capabilities that are important and not the intentions. Like in that classic joke: “You weren’t distilling moonshine, but you’ve got the device.”
An editorial from the San Diego, California, Union Tribune:
Putin is Making a Sham of Democracy
It didn’t take long to understand why Russian President Vladimir Putin chose relatively obscure Dmitry Medvedev, a deputy prime minister, as his endorsed candidate in Russia’s presidential election next March. A day after the 42-year-old Medvedev, a Putin protege, was anointed as his virtually certain successor, Medvedev announced he would ask Putin to be prime minister. That speaks volumes about Russia’s sham democracy.
The Russian Federation’s constitution prohibits Putin from a third term as president. Yet, as a hands-on prime minister in a government presided over by the compliant Medvedev, Putin would accomplish the equivalent of a third term. Add still another reason to regard Russia’s leader as Czar Putin. The Putin-to-Medvedev-to-Putin play follows Russia’s parliamentary elections Dec. 2, which sent much the same message.
Putin’s party, United Russia, steamrollered the fragmented, partially suppressed opposition to win an overwhelming victory. United Russia won 64 percent of the vote, giving the Kremlin’s favored party 315 seats in the 450-seat Duma, Russia’s parliament. Foreign observers complained about a patently unfair election. Opposition parties had little access to the Kremlin-controlled media, television in particular, which devoted fawning coverage to Putin and United Russia.
The dwindling band of Russian liberals striving to defend democracy was manhandled by police and shunned by most of the press. Gary Kasparov, former world chess champion and now a beleguered pro-democracy activist, was arrested and jailed for five days before the election on a flimsy legal pretext. This isn’t to say that United Russia wouldn’t have won anyway. Putin and his party are undeniably popular, thanks to Russia’s booming oil and gas revenues and fast-growth economy. The political opposition is fractured and largely ineffective. But that makes the Kremlin’s – read, Putin’s – heavy-handed tactics all the more ominous. A government that strong-arms a weak opposition when that’s hardly necessary betrays an especially ugly penchant
Now, it appears, Putin has effectively evaded constitutional constraints barring him from remaining in power. What should worry Europe and America most are the multiplying signs that an increasingly autocratic Russia is also increasingly hostile to the West. Putin regularly lashes out at imagined foreign influence and interference in Russian affairs. Whether Medvedev fully shares Putin’s prejudices isn’t known. But a youthful protege who owes his career to Putin isn’t likely to defy his mentor’s world view, or remake the unhelpful Russian foreign policy flowing from it. Optimists note that at least Medvedev lacks Putin’s roots in the old Soviet Union’s KGB.
That won’t matter, however, if the real power in the Kremlin through 2012 is still Czar Putin.