23 September 2004

Questions for Vladimir Vladimirovich

For a very few days, Russia was back in the US news when, ostensibly responding to the Beslan tragedy, President Putin put in place a number of centralizing measures, particularly direct appointment of regional governors and restrictions on State Duma candidates. Most commentaries I heard (from both inside and outside Russia) emphasized the threat to democracy posed by Putin's steps, and charged him with using the Beslan events as a convenient trigger for changes he was intending to make in any case. Without denying a single point of these critics' concerns, I find myself feeling an unexpected sense of sympathy for Putin and the choices facing him. Here are some of the points that I would like more commentators to address:
  • Putin isn't exactly pulling a coup. He had the powers all along that he is now using (for example, to appoint regional executives). He had those powers because the checks and balances were insufficiently institutionalized before he ever showed up.
  • There is no doubt in my mind that Putin has put in place an authoritarian system. Freedom of speech exists to a great degree, and lively newspapers and magazines bear witness to this fact. However, such freedom is tolerated only to the extent that it is not too influential - thus, television is far more tightly controlled than the fragmented print media. However, Putin does have a point - he has argued that those broadcasters who claimed to be independent were as political as the pro-Kremlin outlets ... those independent outlets reflected the views of the tycoons who owned them, not some altruistic source of public wisdom.
  • Putin's freedom to operate, and his near-total dominance of the political scene, reflects not only his use of direct and indirect power; it also reflects the pathetic inability of his opposition to get over individual egos and grudges, and put together an appealing coalition to present a more democratic alternative vision.
  • Perhaps most importantly, Putin faces a situation of present chaos and the potential of greater chaos in the future. He faces simultaneously: a maldistribution of resources nationwide that actually threatens citizens in some places with starvation and loss of heat and electricity in the winter; a porous border and several refugee emergencies (some of Russia's own making) coupled with all sorts of humans in legal limbo who were part of (or whose spouses were part of) the old USSR; dramatic terrorist episodes plus the drumbeat of organized-crime and other murders less publicized in the West; an escalating mortality rate and declining birth rate; serious environmental crises, with elevated levels of birth defects in places like Elektrostal; corruption in the public services, and a lack of imagination and initiative even among those who are not corrupt; resurgent fascist, anti-semitic and skinhead movements along with totalitarian cults; large sectors of the country's commercial life in the hands of his political enemies or of criminals; a legislature with a large number of hacks who, in some cases, obtained their seats to benefit from the legal immunity gained from that service; an underdeveloped legal infrastructure partially under the control of capricious local figures; and on and on.

    In such a situation, it is natural for Putin to want as much power as possible, in order to gain at least a bit of a purchase on the problems facing his country. In fact, if you take an honest look at the very serious challenges facing Putin (challenges that are much more immediate that answering foreign critics), the amount of power that he apparently possesses begins to shrink in comparison - unless I permit myself to assume that Putin really only wants power for its own sake, for the sheer pleasure of it, or to enhance his personal fortune; and I'm not that cynical yet.

Some of his critics seem to me to value abstract democracy over government action on behalf of those who are actually suffering from this chaos and who demand that their government do more to protect them. And these abstractions can end up seeming like luxuries. Here are some interesting remarks from Oleg Morozov, deputy speaker of the Duma, in a recent radio interview (provided by Amnesty International - thank you!) - interesting for both their specious and disingenuous explanations and for the honest pragmatism that must be admitted, is also part of the Kremlin's calculations:

Russia is living in a new world and must acknowledge that it is fighting a war against international terrorism, Oleg Morozov, a One Russia MP and the deputy speaker of the State Duma, told Radio Russia on 21 September. He added that President Vladimir Putin's planned political changes were part of his new war-time staff policy. Commenting on recent presidential initiatives to change the procedure of gubernatorial elections, Morozov said that, initially, Putin had been against but the hostage crisis in Beslan has changed matters. "On 1 September we woke up in a different country and a new world. We have realized we live in a new geopolitical and psychological reality. We must honestly admit that we have entered a long and cruel war with international terrorism", Morozov said. In these new conditions security must be ensured in a new way too. If we don't acknowledge this and continue to live in the old way, aircraft will keep crashing and other terrible things will keep happening, he added. "No-one has ever encountered this kind of war and therefore any political issues - whether to appoint or elect governors and what to do about the security services - should be considered in a totally new reality," Morozov said. When asked why an appointed governor will work more effectively than an elected one, Morozov said that the executive branch, including the president, is responsible for ensuring that people's human rights are observed and security is guaranteed. Hence, the president should be given the right to create a power structure which would allow him to resolve the problem of people's security more effectively. It is the president's new war-time staff policy, he added. "The constitution does not specify whether governors should be appointed or elected. I do not quite understand how my rights of a citizen will be violated if a head of a region is not elected. The only difference is that it is not me personally who elects the governor. But I do elect parties, the president and legislative assemblies. So the democratic procedure is observed and my rights are not violated. It is not being done because authorities want to usurp power. Putin has already vast power," Morozov said.

So much to point out - where to begin?? But Morozov's very last statement is quite true - and maybe we should pause and think about what additional powers the president could centralize but hasn't yet.

At this late point in my evening, I'm also going to resist asking whether there are any OTHER world leaders claiming that terrorism gives the government special license to behave as in "war-time."

Here are my questions for Putin. I would not ask him abstract questions about whether he really believes in democracy or is a secret stalinist or monarchist. I would ask him whether he plans to appoint people to regional or security posts based on their qualifications or based on their loyalties. How will we know, and how will we express our evaluations of these appointments? Why have there been so few changes in the high levels of the security branches in the wake of the airplane bombings and Beslan? I would ask him whether or not he is willing to be transparent about his own financial gains and losses in public service, and those of his friends and personal associates. I would suggest to him that, when he must make a decision that is less than ideal, that he put some humility into his public explanations rather than falling back on a sort of technocratic machismo. This would especially be helpful in Chechnya, where it seems to me that a huge number of bad decisions have been made simply out of lack of creativity and resources. Why pretend that the highly compromised politicians that have been finessed into place there to fly the Kremlin flag, sometimes regrettably at the cost of their lives, are the great national heroes that the official PR says they are? To be fair, I felt there was a hint of such humility in the wake of Beslan. It is important for Putin and his associates to realize that the list of problems they are facing in today's Russia, aside from the sad inventory I attempted above, includes a huge amount of cynicism in the general population.

Finally, I would ask him to consider all these powers that he has taken on to make his administrative life more manageable, perhaps understandably, and answer this question: would he trust his own successor with these powers?

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