Thursday, October 04, 2007

Putin the Great

October 3, 2007 - WSJ

Vladimir Putin has announced that he will remain active in Russian politics, probably as prime minister, after his second presidential term expires next year. The sorry news in this is that it surprises no one.

It has now been eight years since the world first learned of Mr. Putin, a KGB man vaulted almost overnight from municipal obscurity into the presidency by an ailing Boris Yeltsin. Mr. Putin made his political mark by initiating a second war against the breakaway province of Chechnya, using the pretext of a series of alleged terrorist bombings in Russia. According to Alexander Litvinenko, the one-time spy who became an opponent of the Putin regime before his murder last year, these bombings were orchestrated by the Russian secret services.

By January 2000, the Chechen capital of Grozny resembled Dresden in 1945. Yet Western leaders did not turn away from Mr. Putin. On the contrary, they feted him as an "flawless democrat" (Gerhard Schröeder) and a man "deeply committed [to the] best interests of his country" (President Bush). He has been helped by the tripling of oil prices, a gift in part of Alan Greenspan's easy money Federal Reserve policy.

The petrorubles have allowed Mr. Putin to service Russia's debts, build up its foreign-currency reserves, pay its miners, soldiers and civil servants, and turn Moscow and St. Petersburg into showcase cities; his job approval rating is near 70%. They have also helped obscure his policy of repression in the Caucasus, his attacks on independent media and domestic human rights organizations, and his appointment of KGB cronies to key positions of power.

More difficult for the world to overlook has been Mr. Putin's meddling in the politics of Russia's neighbors: the oil and gas pipelines turned off in the dead of winter; the effort to steal Ukraine's 2004 election; the 2006 embargo imposed on tiny Georgia; this year's cyberwar against Estonia. The murder a year ago of crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the polonium poisoning of Mr. Litvinenko were notable for the studied indifference they inspired in the Russian government. Mr. Putin eulogized Ms. Politkovskaya with the remark that her influence "was minimal."

All of this has coincided with an increasingly assertive Russian foreign policy that often seeks to undermine U.S. interests. Most notably, a Russian veto threat continues to limit U.N. sanctions designed to stop Iran's nuclear program. Mr. Bush's restraint in criticizing Mr. Putin's domestic crackdown has been partly in the service of winning the Russian's cooperation on Iran -- to little effect.

Given this career arc, it comes as no surprise that Mr. Putin now seeks to hold on to power, despite his previous Julius Caesar-like avowals to the contrary, and despite a constitutional limitation on remaining president for more than two successive terms. Coming on the heels of his surprise appointment of aging apparatchik Viktor Zubkov as prime minister, it seems Mr. Putin intends either to rule Russia from his parliamentary office or, using a constitutional loophole, perhaps return to the presidency after a decent interval.

No doubt Mr. Putin will get away with this, given his control over the media and other levers of power. But he will still have to observe the formalities of a presidential election next year, and former chess champion Garry Kasparov has said he intends to lead the political opposition. The West needs to put Mr. Putin on notice that if Mr. Kasparov suffers some "accident" -- if, say, he is hit by a car -- the world will not look the other way.

Bill Clinton made the mistake of welcoming Mr. Putin into the G-8, and Western leaders lack the will to expel him now. But his current maneuvering to retain power should make clear beyond doubt that Mr. Putin has ransacked the hopes the world once had for post-Soviet Russian democracy. He is reviving Russian authoritarianism, and the world's democracies need to prepare for its consequences.

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