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In Putin's Kremlin, It's All About Control

By Yevgenia Albats
Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page B03


The Kremlin's rough intrusion into the Ukrainian elections, including its heavy-handed lobbying on behalf of a convicted criminal, has startled the West on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet for those who have been paying attention to Vladimir Putin's Russia, this should not have come as a surprise. Quite the contrary. The Kremlin's approach to Ukraine's elections is a logical extension of Putin's policies at home over the past four years.

Allow me to remind you of what Putin has accomplished since Boris N. Yeltsin left the presidency on Dec. 31, 1999, and anointed Putin as heir apparent. While declaring himself and Russia a friend of democracy and of the West, Putin has slowly and systematically extended the state's control over society and tightened its grip on Russia's most important institutions.

He has obliterated the media, leaving almost no room for dissent. The national television networks are under strict government control. Just as under the Soviets, editors are summoned to the Kremlin on a weekly basis to be given outlines of what news should be covered and what should not, which guests should be invited to appear on which (pre-recorded) shows and for how many seconds, and which should not. Nothing goes live; spontaneity would be dangerous. Even Kultura, the cultural affairs channel, was recently given a list of unwelcome guests, according to people inside the station.

The slightest deviation can result in punishment. The Kremlin decided that Raf Shakirov, the editor of the national daily Izvestia, covered the hostage crisis in Beslan too emotionally in September because he ran a photo of a dead child on the front page, and he was promptly fired.

No one dares criticize Putin or his politics to a nationwide audience. Thus, the Kremlin can prevent the emergence of an alternative to Putin who might challenge his politics. This absence of an alternative, by the way, is an important reason for Putin's high popularity rating inside the country.

Putin has abolished the system of checks and balances, turning the parliament into a body of yes men, by exploiting Russia's weak party system and manipulating media campaign coverage, determining which candidates get favorable news coverage and which do not. Dominating parliament was not enough for him. He used the fear sown by the Beslan attack to abolish the democratic election of governors. Now, he is going to appoint leaders of the 88 regions, violating the essence of the federation making up Russia.

The academic community has also been targeted, with the jailing of scientists Igor Sutyagin (15 years of hard labor for analyzing publicly available information) and Valentin Danilov (14 years in a high-security labor camp, without the possibility of pardon, for selling scientific information that his defenders say is in the public domain). Both were charged with treason.

Business is under attack as well. Putin has been at the forefront of an assault intended to redistribute the nation's most lucrative properties and cow any businessmen who might fancy too much power and independence for themselves. We are reminded of this when we periodically see Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man, sitting in a cage in a courtroom.

Khodorkovsky, head of Yukos Oil, was arrested more than a year ago on charges of tax evasion. He has been in prison ever since, and his trial -- on most days a farcical reading of charges -- winds interminably on, as Yukos, the nation's biggest and most successful company, is slowly destroyed. In a matter of two weeks, its major assets are to be acquired for one-third their market value by the state gas monopoly Gazprom.

Much of this bears the shadowy but unmistakable imprint of the security forces. Putin has saturated the bureaucracy with former and current officers of the FSB, the Federal Security Service and successor to the KGB. Many people thought that these new strong hands would do something about the corruption of the Yeltsin years. They did. Things got worse: The cost of bribes went up by at least 30 percent. "They even charge us [former colleagues] more than Yeltsin's guys did," a retired KGB general who is now in a financial business told me in astonishment. Apparently, he expected his former pals at arms to offer him a discount. They haven't.

This record can be summed up in one word: Control.

By training, Putin is a man of control. He spent a major part of his life in the KGB, whose leaderships and agents were entrusted by the Communist Party with safeguarding the regime. The KGB taught its soldiers well; its institutional culture has not been easily thrown off and its imperatives have proved stronger than Putin's leanings toward democracy.

Democracy, which requires a ruling party to submit to the inevitable loss of an election, represents an unacceptable threat. A successful people's revolution in Ukraine is a threat twice over, serving as a dangerous example to the people of Russia. Putin and his entourage are perfectly aware of this danger. Regardless of what Putin says in public (or to President Bush in private) about his vision of the special way of democratic development in Russia, he is taking every precaution to ensure that true democracy never exists in his land.

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