Putin’s shock of the old
28 June 2004 http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,9973876%255E2703,00.html
Vladimir Putin has thrown down the gauntlet to civil society. In an address to the nation last month, the Russian President made clear that the state reigns supreme.
His speech drove home just how grim Russia’s political landscape has become. In the post-Soviet period, Russia was on the way to becoming an open society. Now Russians risk returning to an era they thought they had left behind.
When Putin came to power in 2000, putting Russia back together again was his first task. That drive to rebuild the country seemed a welcome antidote to the anarchy of the years of Boris Yeltsin’s rule.
He was repairing a weak and fragmented state that could not collect taxes or implement the rule of law, and had no control over much of its territory.
The hallmarks of state capitalism are now in place. The state coffers are full, with Russia’s reserves higher than ever. A flat tax of 13 per cent has calmed jittery investors.
The high price of oil also has played a role. But Russia’s liberalised economy has not meant democracy. Putin seems to be emulating Singapore, or Chile under Augusto Pinochet, with economic stability the top priority. (emphasis added)
Russia would be better served if the President looked to the European Union’s newest members, which have managed to balance economic and political liberalism with success.
That said, Putin has given Russians what they crave most stability. Recent polls testify to his huge popularity, with support ratings of about 80 per cent.
And Putin’s re-election in March only redoubled his mandate. He now controls more than two-thirds of the Duma, which means he can change the constitution at will. The remaining two liberal parties were shut out of parliament when they failed to meet the 5 per cent threshold.
Putin has overseen the virtual disappearance of independent television. The handful of remaining independent papers reaches a tiny fraction of Russia’s population of 146million. His state-of-the-nation speech raised fears that human rights activists could now become targets.
The offices of the Kazan Human Rights Centre were raided this month and equipment destroyed by masked men. Last week, the Interior Ministry demanded the British Council’s financial records, even questioning why the organisation was in Russia.
Putin has done his best to remove Chechnya from the headlines, not by finding a solution to the conflict but by suppressing independent reporting.
After Russian authorities protested, Anna Politkovskaya, an award-winning journalist who had written eloquently about Chechnya, even had her invitation to a panel discussion at the Frankfurt book fair cancelled.
The reality is that the war in Chechnya rages on, as last week’s massive rebel attack in the neighbouring province of Ingushetia demonstrated.
Human Rights Watch has reported that the number of disappearances last year was the highest since the second Chechen war began in 1999. Despite the destruction and loss of life, Putin remains intent on using force to subdue the region.
More than a year ago, I decided to close my Russian foundation, confident that the state could now take on large-scale initiatives, chiefly in the fields of education and public health, that I had been funding for the past 15 years.
I remained committed to the Russian people and have donated almost $US1 billion ($1.43 billion) in Russia. I welcomed the prospect of businessmen such as the now jailed Mikhail Khodorkovsky continuing the key work in civil society and on the internet that my foundation had supported.
Khodorkovsky’s arrest has cast a pall over the business community. Anyone who considered donning the mantle of philanthropist has understood that nothing is possible without the state’s seal of approval.
Putin must realise that Russia can not be a healthy country if he strangles civil society. The state cannot thrive when divorced from society.
The Russian bureaucracy, waiting for guidance from above, is showing signs of indecision. Putin’s effort to modernise Russia cannot succeed unless critical thinking is protected.
If he fails to reverse course, Putin will undermine what he wants most a strong state. The economic development that he seeks to foster will escape him.
George Soros, financier and philanthropist, is the founder of the Open Society Institute.