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Russia's Managed Democracy


The Boston Globe, Jan. 30, 2004

Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to Russia this week came as a welcome sign that the Bush administration may still recognize the value of old-fashioned diplomacy. Nevertheless, the tactfully phrased criticisms of the Kremlin that Powell wrote in a column for the daily Izvestia were too diplomatic to do much good for many Russians suffocating under what they call President Vladimir Putin's managed democracy. Their own denunciations of the hybrid power system Putin has created are much more forthright than the tepid reservations that appeared under Powell's byline on Monday. Domestic critics commonly call Putin a Russian Pinochet - an allusion to the military dictator Augusto Pinochet, who seized power in Chile in 1973 and used his security services to crush political opposition while making his country hospitable to unregulated free-market forces.

'Russia's democratic system seems not yet to have found the essential balance among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government,' Powell wrote. 'Political power is not yet fully tethered to law. Key aspects of civil society - free media and political party development, for example - have not yet sustained an independent presence.' The reality is that the Kremlin's control of television has turned that crucial mass medium into a crude tool of political propaganda. As a consequence, the political party favored by Putin and the K.G.B. veterans in his inner circle was able to capture two-thirds of the seats in last December's parliamentary election. And after oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky let it be known that he intended to sell a major share of his giant energy company Yukos to American oil firms - and that he was thinking about using his fortune to run for president against Putin - he was arrested, held without bail, and accused of fraud and tax evasion.

This may be what Powell meant when he rued that political power in Putin's Kremlin 'is not tethered to law.' Russians able to have their say in a partly free press tend to be less euphemistic. Boris Kagarlitsky, columnist for The Moscow Times, wrote last Thursday: 'Vladimir Putin's Kremlin values discipline and obedience above all. Politicians in the state Duma, regardless of political affiliation, either join ranks and march to Putin's tune or they learn the hard way what it means to fall from the czar's favor.' By contrast, the delicacy of Powell's critique makes it seem he is merely playing to a domestic American audience while relieving Bush of the obligation to publicly criticize his soul brother in the Kremlin. But Bush ought to speak out himself, aligning the United States with Russia's real democratic forces and not with Putin's managed democracy.