Mr. Putin's Verdict

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

WHAT WAS "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century"? The rise of Nazi Germany? The spread of genocide as a tool of state power? Some might say it was the crushing of a host of nations by the totalitarian Soviet Union, at the cost of millions of lives. But not Russian President Vladimir Putin. For him, the greatest catastrophe was not the Soviet Union's rise but its collapse -- an event that freed 14 of those nations, from Latvia to Kyrgyzstan, from Moscow's domination. "The old ideals were destroyed," Mr. Putin lamented during his annual state-of-Russia address on Monday.

Most accounts of Mr. Putin's speech focused on the passages intended for Western consumption: his claim that "the development of Russia as a free and democratic state" is now his highest priority; his assurance to Russian and foreign business executives that their investments will not be seized by rapacious authorities, despite the state's recent confiscation of the country's largest oil company; his announced plans to strengthen political parties and make the state-controlled media more independent.

Yet the former KGB officer's nostalgia for the former Soviet empire seemed as telling as any of his promises. So did his denunciation of the "disintegration" of Russia before he came to power, which he defined as the "capitulation" of granting autonomy to Chechnya and the "unrestricted control over information flows" that allowed private business executives to operate newspapers and television networks. Mr. Putin has reversed both of those liberalizations -- in Chechnya's case, by means of an ongoing war that has killed tens of thousands.

The Russian president has a short-term interest in burnishing what even he must recognize as a tarnished image. Early next month he is due to host numerous world leaders, including President Bush, in a celebration of the Soviet victory in World War II. This summer Mr. Putin is due to take over the rotating leadership of the Group of Eight, a club of industrial democracies in which Russia, an increasingly autocratic state that ranks 97th in the world in per capita gross domestic product, is glaringly out of place. As Mr. Putin acknowledged Monday, his strategy for restoring Russian greatness depends heavily on his ability to attract Western capital and to maintain partnerships with the European Union and the United States.

But Mr. Putin would like to achieve these goals while consolidating the Kremlin's restored diktat and reviving what he called "the Russian nation's civilizing mission in the Eurasian continent." That's why the best measures of Mr. Putin are not speeches but actions. One important test will be his handling of neighbors such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, which have embraced democracy and rejected Mr. Putin's neo-imperialism. Will he adjust his approach to those countries, and withdraw unwanted Russian troops from Georgia and Moldova?

Another comes today at the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the entrepreneur who built the Yukos oil conglomerate and used it to help finance Russia's liberal democratic opposition. For daring to behave as if Russia were the free and capitalist-friendly country that Mr. Putin describes, Mr. Khodorkovsky was arrested and subjected to a show trial, even as his company, Russia's most modern, was broken up. Today he will receive his verdict; prosecutors have requested a prison sentence of 10 years. The outcome ought to tell the Bush administration and other Western governments something important about a leader who would set the agenda for the world's advanced democracies.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company