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Headed For a Fall In Russia?

By Masha Lipman
Wednesday, February 23, 2005; Page A19

MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin thinks that by eliminating the checks and balances of democratic government he can bring about order and stability in Russia. There's just one problem with this plan: It isn't working. Consolidating power in the Kremlin and putting hordes of state security officials in government positions has made Russia less manageable, not more.

Criticism of Putin's policies has become almost commonplace in elite circles. Business executives, political analysts, liberal intellectuals, the Moscow print media, liberal political Web sites, politicians outside the pro-Kremlin party and even some inside the government all sound increasingly resentful of developments in Russia. Dmitry Kozak, Putin's trusted envoy in Russia's southern territories, made a remarkable statement recently about the Russian judicial system. He said that the situation was "catastrophic, threatening. People are convinced that the [judicial] system is infested with corruption and truth is impossible to find." Before his current mission in Russia's explosive south, Kozak was in charge of judicial reform in Putin's administration.

(Alexander Natruskin -- Reuters)

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More daring analysts are talking about an imminent collapse of Putin's regime that could result from another mishandled crisis. Some even compare the situation of today with that of the late U.S.S.R., when the decaying communist regime became progressively out of touch with reality, failed to respond to its accumulating problems and ended in meltdown.

In recent months policy failures have built up at an alarming rate. The economic picture is discouraging despite exorbitant oil prices. The campaign against the giant oil firm Yukos, the increasing harassment of businesses by law enforcement people and the growing involvement of the state in the economy have inflicted tremendous damage on it: Growth has slowed and is lower than in most ex-Soviet countries. Capital flight in 2004 was at least four times that of the previous year, and inflation is higher than projected. Chechnya is the scene of hundreds of abductions, and of torture. Pro-Moscow Chechen forces are barely distinguishable in the way they operate from criminal gangs -- both kill, kidnap, rob and sow fear among Chechen civilians. Moreover, violence has gone beyond the territory of Chechnya; reports of subversive attacks and bloody clashes come from all over the northern Caucasus almost on a weekly basis.

On the foreign policy front, Russia suffered the worst embarrassment in its post-communist history after an abortive attempt to install a Kremlin-backed president in Ukraine. Domestically, the long-announced reform of social benefits revealed a deeply flawed decision-making process and failures in carrying out policy. According to some estimates, the cost of reforming benefits is running twice as high as originally planned.

The primary goal of those running the Kremlin is to further consolidate their power and preserve the status quo after 2008 when Putin's second and

last term has expired. Beyond this goal they have no national strategy or vision. In theory, more failures or crises might have a sobering effect and push the leadership toward more rational policies. But previous experience gives little reason for hope.

Those talking of an imminent collapse of Putin's regime tend to think of it as a chance to get rid of the incompetent ruling elite he has brought in and to promote saner, more democratic, professional and modern governance. But a reasonably soft collapse seems unlikely, and the comparison with the meltdown of communism is strained. The Soviet leadership was old and impotent, spoiled by long years of comfortable stagnation, while the Soviet public of the late 1980s was inspired by the liberal mood of perestroika. Today's ruling elite has only recently taken hold of the perks of state power, and it wouldn't yield them easily. Proponents of freedom and democracy have lost their popular appeal, and more than a decade after the fall of communism, nationalist sentiments are far more common among the Russian public than liberal ones.

Add to this a precarious security situation and the prospect of collapse seems all the more ugly. What it would likely lead to would be nationalists coming to the fore and policies that follow an increasingly isolationist and repressive course.

For the time being, though, oil prices are high, which may allow the Russian government to get away with its poor performance and muddle through. The Russian people have been remarkably indifferent to the failure of the current policies, except when their material status has been immediately affected. And the government may well put off or curtail potentially unpopular reforms so as not to test the public's patience.

Without the public's support, those who are discontented -- the successful, the entrepreneurial in Russia -- are bound to remain irrelevant on the political scene. Timid attempts to launch a new democratic party have been made, but the public is hardly aware of them.

More muddling through appears to be a better option for Russia than another governmental collapse. But either way, the country's national modernization project has again come to a halt.

Masha Lipman, editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Pro et Contra journal, writes a monthly column for The Post.

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