Two Leaders' Power Failures

By Jim Hoagland
Thursday, March 9, 2006

When does a senior government official decide that the bosses can no longer be trusted or expected to change for the better? That they must instead be restrained by the force of political opposition from causing more damage?

The question ceased to be academic for Andrei Illarionov some time ago. In December he resigned as a senior economic adviser to President Vladimir Putin and became an outspoken critic of the way things are going in Russia. Listening to Illarionov's informative lament the other day, I couldn't help thinking of the swelling crisis of confidence in President Bush's leadership that is occurring in Washington.

This is not to compare Bush to Putin, a former KGB colonel, or Russia's shrinking democratic space to the vigorous cacophony of American politics. Neither comparison holds water.

But if power corrupts in the ways suggested by Lord Acton, so can feelings of powerlessness. Stung by terrorist assaults on their homelands, Bush and Putin set out separately to restore executive authority and a national discipline they felt had eroded over time. And they have now pushed efforts to concentrate power to the point of provoking cries of alarm -- not only from civil libertarians but also from those within their own political ranks.

"For three years, we were able to accomplish a good deal as an economic team," Illarionov told Post editors and reporters on Monday during a brief visit here. "But gradually, it became impossible to do anything on economic policy" as the Kremlin took control over Russia's most important businesses as well as the legislature and courts.

"For a time, I thought these could be mistakes, and they might be corrected. But I came to understand that was not the case," the economist continued.

That realization came primarily through the confiscation of the Yukos oil group and the brutal jailing of its chairman, Mikhail Khodorkovsky -- actions that Illarionov publicly and sharply criticized while still in office. "From then, I saw my main duty as the duty to speak out" as political parties and broadcast media were taken over or coerced into silence by the Kremlin.

After resigning, Illarionov published a scathing critique of Russia's being turned into "a corporate state" run for the benefit of a few who were empowered to ransack and loot private companies at will. His 1,900-word article appeared in Kommersant, an opposition Moscow newspaper, on Jan. 23.

Both in the article and in our conversation, Illarionov refused to criticize Putin personally or to offer a theory about what changed between spring 2000 -- when Illarionov went to work at the Kremlin with bright hopes and enough influence to enact reforms -- and autumn 2004, when he effectively gave up on Putin's rule. The fact that he is returning to Moscow this week may account for his reticence.

Illarionov did note that huge revenue windfalls from surging energy prices enhanced the government's ability to do things its way. Another part of the answer to the puzzle of what happened may lie in a description I heard recently of the most pressing problems facing a great nation:

"The powers of the presidency have been eroded and usurped to the breaking point. We are engaged in a new kind of war that cannot be fought by old methods. It can only be directed by a strong executive who alone is not subject to the conflicting pressures that legislators or judges face. The public understands and supports that unpleasant reality, whatever the media and intellectuals say."

These words came from a White House aide defending U.S. policies on Guantanamo Bay prisoners, secret renditions and warrantless eavesdropping in a conversation with me. A few days later, I heard a Russian official use nearly identical terms to defend his country's coercive merging of private energy and media companies under state control.

Both Putin and Bush swim against the tides of their time as state power fragments or atrophies everywhere, not just in Moscow or Washington. The spread of technology and global communications weakens all governments. The better policy choice is to take those changes into account and use them in nimble fashion, rather than simply lashing out against them in strong-arm fashion.

U.S. public trust and confidence in the Bush White House are slipping toward the threshold of self-sustaining political disaster. A serious schism within the Republican Party itself is no longer unthinkable if the White House cannot demonstrate minimal competence in managing Katrina, Guantanamo, Dubai Ports World and other controversies. There is a point, as the case of Andrei Illarionov shows, where even those who wish you well will give up.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company