The Politics of Mind over Matter

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If Putin has his way, in years to come Russians will care even less about such problems: they will not hear about them. Political opposition has already been muted and the press partly muzzled, and this tendency seems destined to continue. Putin's treatment of criticism has, in fact, been a dominant feature of his first year in office and is central to understanding the mix of ideology and animosity that he runs on. Like so many Russian and Soviet rulers, Putin believes that a powerful state is vital to the country's security, well-being and unity. Criticism of the state is, therefore, not only unwelcome, but destructive. Coupled with this is his own deep sensitivity to criticism and a streak of what some close observers like Levada believe is vindictiveness. "Putin's main motivating force is a sense of grievance" at the world, says Natalya Gevorkian, one of his official biographers.

Among the first to feel the wrath of the new regime was Andrei Babitsky, an outspoken correspondent for the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty, who infuriated Moscow by covering the war from the Chechen side. Arrested by Russian troops in Chechnya, Babitsky, a Russian citizen, was detained, beaten and handed to alleged Chechen guerrillas the implication being that he was one of them anyway in exchange for Russian prisoners. In fact, the "guerrillas" seem to have been Chechens close to Russian intelligence services. A month later he was released. Throughout the affair Putin was studiously low-key about Babitsky, pretending to know little about him. In private, according to an eyewitness, he appeared extremely well-informed about the affair, referring to the reporter as "a son of a bitch."

The main target, however, has been ntv, the highly opinionated flagship of Vladimir Gusinsky's Media-Most empire. ntv failed to rally behind Putin during his presidential campaign, then made matters worse by criticizing the Chechnya operation and the Kursk fiasco. As a result, the firm has been embroiled in on-again, off-again criminal investigations and civil suits, its founder Gusinsky briefly imprisoned and his property impounded. He is now fighting extradition from his home in Spain. Last week, when news broke that cnn founder Ted Turner might buy a stake in Media-Most, police raided the company again. This time they searched the offices of the executive who had been due to leave for London that day for discussions on the Turner purchase.

Much of the motivation for the campaign against Media-Most is pure power politics. "TV made a KGB colonel President," a Media-Most executive remarked, "and he knows TV could make another colonel President if he does not control it." But the issue is not just politics: Putin has also been known to describe Gusinsky as his main personal enemy. Chances are the Kremlin wants to control TV news, with its nationwide reach, while leaving newspapers, largely the preserve of well-heeled urbanites, more or less untouched. But self-censorship is already setting in. The editor of a major daily sympathetic to the Putin administration says he has endured enough late-night summonses to the Kremlin usually for a dressing-down over some minor infraction that he has become cautious in what he writes. Many observers fear that curbs on the press are only the beginning. Political scientist Liliya Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center warned recently that the country is heading "in the direction of the annihilation of parliament, the multiparty system and independent media."

The Russian legislature has also become a quieter place since Putin was elected. Many of the curbs, though, were self-inflicted from a desire to pander to the new strong man or avoid the price of resistance. Putin's own obedient bloc, Unity, dominates the lower house, or Duma, and the President gets on well with the Communists, who like his neo-Soviet tendencies. Making masterly use of the skeletons most public figures have in their closets, Putin has chipped away at the power bases of Russia's autocratic and often venal governors. Some, like St. Petersburg's Vladimir Yakovlev, switched from strident opposition to loyal support when the government hinted it might investigate corruption in the city. Others were caught on technicalities, like Kursk governor Alexander Rutskoi, removed from the ballot hours before elections began by a judge who found discrepancies in his official financial statement. Perhaps not surprisingly, the legislature's upper chamber composed mostly of governors voted itself into oblivion at Putin's request. It has been replaced by a consultative body, the State Council.

The name is revealing. It harks back to an institution created at the beginning of the 20th century by Czar Nicholas ll. There are differences: Nicholas allowed part of the council to be elected, while Putin appoints all of his. The revival of the name, though, along with other elements of the past, like the Soviet national anthem, shows a striking characteristic of the new President. When he searches for an innovation, he tends to look backward not to one specific period, but to a mix of the late-Soviet and a little Nicholas ll, an idealized blend of paternal authoritarianism and diluted democracy. (People can criticize in moderation, as long as they are polite and do not touch the President.) In this respect, says a Russian businessman who for years worked closely with the KGB, Putin is the perfect product of his background: "Chekists [KGB officers] above all like social order and predictability," the man said. "They want a country where their own people respect the state and which is respected by the rest of the world." This worldview explains why KGB men now populate the upper reaches of power. They include security adviser Sergei Ivanov, arguably the second most powerful man in Russia, as well as several of the "supergovernors" appointed to oversee the regions.

The KGB credo may provide guidance for controlling Russia but not for reforming it. Moreover, Putin was not even a KGB high-flyer. He was a middle-level bureaucrat who, far from doing James Bond-style espionage or weighty analyses of Western economies, probably collated intelligence reports at a small East German listening post in Dresden. And public euphoria will not last forever. So far its rosy haze has covered the inexperience of the President and his team. But the feel-good factor can fade and oil prices go down.

The optimistic assumption is that, faced sooner or later with a real challenge, Putin will look for serious solutions to the country's problems. This presupposes that he tempers his passion for the traditional Russian state. The pessimistic variant is that, when major problems arise, Putin will opt for the easy way out blaming enemies, stifling criticism and muddling through. Russia tried that before, in Czarist and Soviet times, with disastrous results. BACK>>