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President Vladimir Putin

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Russia: Cuckoo in the Nest

26 June 2006

Russia: Cuckoo in the Nest

 By Gwynne Dyer

On Sunday, July 1st, the Russian rouble will become a fully convertible currency, traded under the same rules as dollars, euros, pounds and yen. The date was obviously chosen by President Vladimir Putin to impress his guests at the G8 meeting in St. Petersburg in mid-July with Russia’s economic progress, and there really has been quite a lot of progress on that front since he took over. But the Group of Seven, “the world’s most exclusive club,” was originally meant to be an annual gathering of the leaders of the biggest industrialised democracies.

It would be stretching the term to say that the new member of the Group of Eight, as it became in 1996, is a democracy any more. While sections of the Russian press still conduct raucous political debates, the all-important medium of television has been brought under direct or indirect state control, and more and more power has been concentrated in Putin’s hands. He talks openly of a “managed democracy,” and his chief economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, resigned last December saying that Russia was no longer free or democratic.

It’s equally questionable whether Russia is really an industrialised power any more. The Russian economy resembles Nigeria’s or Iran’s more than those of its fellow G8 members: oil and gas account for 70 export earnings and 30 percent of its entire economy. Even after six years of Putin’s rule, Russian oil production has not risen back up to the level of the early 90s, and only the high price of oil worldwide gives Russia some prosperity at home and some clout abroad.

Then there is Moscow’s ruthless exploitation of its role as the supplier of a quarter of central and western Europe’s gas to extort a better price for its gas exports. Last January’s crisis over Russian gas supplies to Ukraine, which led to cuts in deliveries to countries further west as well, has made western European countries nervous about increasing their dependence on Russian gas exports. (And the crisis may reignite next week, when newly confirmed Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko faces a Russian demand for a further huge price increase.)

Since the whole purpose of inviting Russia to join the G8 was to encourage the growth of democracy and a modern free-market economy in the ex-Communist giant, Russia’s fellow G8 members are filled with consternation at the way things have turned out. However, they are at a loss for how to deal with the cuckoo in their nest. Quiet persuasion doesn’t seem to work, but neither does noisy outrage.

When US Vice-President Dick Cheney criticised Moscow’s democratic deficit and its bullying energy policies during a visit to Lithuania on Russia’s own border last month, Putin counter-attacked by condemning the US invasion of Iraq: “Comrade Wolf knows whom to eat. He eats without listening and he is clearly not going to listen to anyone.” But Putin doesn’t feel the need to listen either — and neither do Russians in general.

The remarkable thing about Putin’s rule is that after six year in office he continues to have the approval, according to reasonably reliable opinion polls, of 77 percent of his fellow-citizens. Indeed, though Putin has sworn to obey the constitutional ban on a third consecutive presidential term and leave power after the March, 2008 election, there is massive popular support for changing the constitution to allow him to stay on for another four years (59 percent yes, 29 percent no). What’s the matter with the Russians? Doesn’t everybody want democracy?

No, not everybody wants democracy. According to Leonid Sedov, a senior analyst at the VtsIOM-A polling agency, about 80 percent of Russians say that they dislike democracy, although they are less clear on what they do like. Only three percent want the return of the tsars, some 16 percent want a tough authoritarian ruler like Stalin, and the rest are scattered all over the political map. But they know they like Putin, because he has given them back stability, prosperity and self-respect.

It’s a reaction to the chaotic process of de-Communisation under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, which was misleadingly called “democratisation,” and it doesn’t necessarily mean thatRussians would dislike real democracy. (They were keen enough on it in 1989-91, before “democratisation” impoverished most of them.) Russians are still among the best-educated populations on the planet, and once the middle class feels prosperous and secure enough, the demand for democracy is likely to re-emerge. But that may be years away, and what are the democratic majority in the G8 to do with this authoritarian cuckoo in their nest in the meantime?

Put up with it, and pretend not to notice that it doesn’t really fit in. Nag it about its more severe human rights abuses, and demand that it give at least lip service to its democratic principles, but don’t drive the regime out into the cold. When the tide finally turns in Russian society, the survival of formal democratic structures and the rule of law in the country, however much abused in practice, will make the task of building a genuine democracy a lot easier.

In effect, that is what the other seven members of the G8 have decided, and they are probably right. Of course, the fact that Russia has all that oil and gas to sell may have influenced their decision too.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“Then…increase”; and “When…general”)

Russian Democracy

4 December 2003

Russian Democracy

By Gwynne Dyer

First, the results of the Russian parliamentary elections on 7 December: United Russia, the ‘party of power’ that supports President Vladimir Putin, wins a large majority. Second, the results of the Russian presidential election next March: Putin wins by a landslide. Third, a question: can Russia be a democracy?

Putin himself is ambivalent on the question. “I’ve been hearing allegations (about the rollback of democracy) for four years now, since I became president of the Russian Federation,” he said in October. “If by democracy one means the dissolution of the state, then we do not need such democracy….I don’t think that there are people in the world who want democracy that would lead to chaos.”

The message is underlined by United Russia’s election posters, which show a mosaic of the faces of fifty Russian heroes arranged to form a map of Russia — and include the faces of Lenin, Stalin and Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police. The message is not that Russia needs Communism back, but that it needs to be led by a strong man who gives orders and is obeyed — like Putin, for example.

There was a frantic flurry of speculation last month when Putin’s government arrested Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s richest man and CEO of the Yukos oil company, the world’s fourth largest. It was particularly noted that if the fallen oligarch is convicted of the charges he faces, involving tax evasion, embezzlement and other corporate misdeeds, then the state will confiscate his assets, including the 40 percent of Yukos’s shares that he owns personally..

Does this mean that Putin is setting out to reverse the privatisation of state-owned industry that occurred after the end of the old Soviet Union in 1991? And have ordinary Russians grown so cynical about politics that they are effectively abandoning democracy from below even before it can be stolen from above?

Putin has no desire to recreate the old socialist economy, and he knows that actions like the persecution of Khodorkovsky are hugely damaging to Russia’s attractiveness to foreign investors. However, he may not be able to stop important allies who missed out on the first wave of privatisations from bringing down the first-wave oligarchs, confiscating their assets, and re-privatising them into their own pockets. Besides, Khodorkovsky had shown an interest in politics, giving money to opposition political parties, which was forbidden to the oligarchs by Putin.

The attitude of the Russian people is a harder question. They persistently show levels of support for Putin of between 70 and 80 percent even as he manipulates them and tramples on their rights. Do they care about democracy, or is it just not a Russian thing?

The problem is that they have been fooled and betrayed so often. The ‘privatisation’ of state assets was carried out in 1992 by giving each adult Russian a voucher for 10,000 roubles to buy shares in the firms that employed them — “What we need is millions of property owners, not a handful of millionaires,” said Yeltsin — but the assets were massively and deliberately undervalued. Gazprom, Russia’s biggest energy industry, for example, was valued at only $250 million, while its stock market value by 1997 was $40 billion.

No sooner had the shares been distributed than an entirely avoidable great inflation destroyed the value of the rouble (and everybody’s savings). Then along came the favoured friends of the Yeltsin ‘family’, clever young Communist apparatchiks retooled as thrusting capitalist entrepreneurs, and bought up all the innocent workers’ shares at bargain-basement prices. That is where Russia’s massively rich oligarchs come from, and why they and their system are hated.

The oligarchs financed Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996, and when he made his deal with Vladimir Putin in 1999 (Putin got the presidency in return for a promise not to prosecute Yeltsin and his cronies for corruption), they initially went along with that too. Putin, a relative unknown, had to start a second war with Chechnya in order to wrap himself in the flag and win the 2000 election. But once he was safely in office he turned on the oligarchs who represented the only serious potential threat to his power.

Putin has now driven a number of the oligarchs into exile, and he knows very well that jailing Khodorkovsky can only add to his popularity. He has silenced or shut down every independent television network, and made great progress towards bringing the print media under control. He has made some economic reforms like a flat-rate 13 percent income tax and corporate tax cuts, and the economy is now growing fast as oil exports soar and prices hold firm — but a third of Russia’s people are still desperately poor, the population is falling by a million a year, and GDP has still not crawled back up to late Soviet levels twelve years after the fall of Communism.

So why will around three-quarters of Russians vote for this cynical manipulator with few real achievements to his credit? Because the Russian people have become deeply cynical about ‘democracy’ as they have experienced it, and respond to anyone who at least seems ‘strong’. It is a pattern alarmingly reminiscent of what happened to the Argentine voting public over a longer period of time, and left them so cynical that democracy in Argentina may be crippled for a generation. If the same thing has happened in Russia, it will be an even greater tragedy.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and . (“The message…example”; and “The oligarchs…power”)

NOTE: if using the article AFTER the election on 7 Dec., use the following lead paragraph instead:

United Russia, the ‘party of power’ that supports President Vladimir Putin, won a large majority in the Russian parliamentary elections on 7 December, just as everybody knew it would. The results of the Russian presidential election next March are equally foreseeable: Putin wins by a landslide. In fact, current Russian elections are almost as predictable as the old Soviet ones. So the question arises: can Russia ever be a real democracy?