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The Rollback of Democracy In Vladimir Putin's Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, right, took part in a wreath-laying ceremony in Moscow on June 22, 2002. In 2004, Putin fired Kasyanov.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, right, took part in a wreath-laying ceremony in Moscow on June 22, 2002. In 2004, Putin fired Kasyanov. (Photos By Mikhail Metzel -- Associated Press)

Other key veterans of the KGB or its successor, the FSB, were in place as defense minister, interior minister and head of a powerful new anti-drug agency that was making politically charged arrests around the country. The siloviki viewed their rise as the natural ascension of the country's elite, back to save the country from itself more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"We are like some kind of demigods, doing something that will either save Russia or badly damage it," Viktor Cherkesov, a onetime KGB dissident-hunter said wryly last year after becoming head of a new anti-drug police force.

The turning point came when Russia's richest man, the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, began building up political influence in defiance of Putin's monopoly on power. By funding opposition parties and nongovernmental organizations, cutting a deal with China for a new pipeline, negotiating a partnership with a U.S. oil giant and trying to extend his sway in parliament, Khodorkovsky had enraged the siloviki.

The tension came to a head during a meeting between Putin and the country's main moguls, known as oligarchs, when Khodorkovsky challenged the president about the corrupt sale of a state oil field. Putin responded sharply, reminding Khodorkovsky that he had obtained his own company, Yukos, through manipulated government auctions in the 1990s.

The other oligarchs winced. "The whole thing came loose after that," Igor Yurgens, vice president of the oligarchs' association, recalled afterward. Some of Khodorkovsky's partners instantly understood the peril, as well. "It was clear to me that we had signed our own death warrants," said Alexei Kondaurov, a top Yukos executive.

Even some Putin aides were surprised at the president's outburst. "Putin just exploded," one said later. "I didn't expect such a reaction. He was just out of control." When he asked Putin about the rigged deal that Khodorkovsky had complained about, the aide recalled, "I discovered he knew about this deeply. I wouldn't say he was himself involved, but he had allowed this to happen."

As his pique grew, Putin later summoned Khodorkovsky back to the Kremlin to ask about a report he had received. Was it true, Putin asked, that Khodorkovsky had met with the Communist Party leader, Gennady Zyuganov, and offered his support? Khodorkovsky denied it.

"Putin was furious," a well-connected government official said, "because he already had the minutes from the conversation between Khodorkovsky and Zyuganov, and the minutes came not from the FSB [the successor to the KGB] but from the Communist Party staff. And when someone lies to the president, it makes it personal."

Kasyanov, Voloshin and other aides tried to intervene on Khodorkovsky's behalf, explaining that Voloshin had authorized the political financing. No, Putin shot back. "That's Khodorkovsky. It's his game. He wants to buy parliament. I can't allow this."

Khodorkovsky was later arrested on fraud and tax evasion charges and his company dissected and partially renationalized. A state oil company headed by Sechin ended up with Yukos's major subsidiary, Yuganskneftegaz. Khodorkovsky was sentenced to nine years in prison just last week.

Last Link Severed

By the time Putin decided to fire his prime minister in mid-campaign, Mikhail Kasyanov was perhaps the only well-known political figure left in Russia who could openly challenge the president if he chose to.

The ascendant siloviki had long agitated for Kasyanov's ouster. The prime minister was the last senior link to the Yeltsin days and virtually the only member of Putin's government who had offered even token public disagreement when Khodorkovsky was arrested. He had fought with Putin in private sometimes as well. When heavily armed Chechen rebels seized a theater in the heart of Moscow, Putin ordered commandos to prepare to storm the building. Kasyanov argued with him, fearing a blood bath. Putin responded by sending him to an international conference in Mexico.

"Putin doesn't like to have discussions," a senior Russian official said. "You shouldn't demonstrate weakness to people. He was always saying, 'As soon as people see you're weak, they will beat you immediately and you will lose.' That's why he does all he does to demonstrate he is strong."

And now Kasyanov's rivals had effectively poisoned the president against him, warning that the prime minister was entertaining offers from the defeated remnants of Russia's democratic opposition to lead their comeback. "His people took that fact and accelerated it into this great story," recalled the senior official.

Putin had signaled his discontent just two days earlier, clashing with Kasyanov at a closed-door cabinet meeting over the cutoff of gas deliveries to neighboring Belarus. The discussion became so heated that the normally reserved president abruptly ended the session.

But according to an account Kasyanov later gave associates, the prime minister had no sense of his impending ouster until Putin canceled their daily meeting the morning of Kasyanov's final day in office. When Putin summoned him that afternoon, the president was so intent on getting rid of Kasyanov he hadn't even been fully briefed on the procedures for firing the prime minister -- which required Putin to fire the rest of the cabinet as well. Photographers recorded the shocked faces of cabinet ministers who had been fired but had never been served notice of their dismissal by the president.

In the end, it had come down to television once again.

Project Putin had succeeded back in 1999 through the power of manipulated airwaves, and Putin could not now trust Kasyanov with control of such a potent instrument, even for a short interregnum between elections. "He understood that television could be switched," the senior official said, "and everything could be turned in one month."

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