The Strains of Putin’s Clampdown

September 27, 2004

George W. Bush last week expressed sympathy in his address at the United Nations for the victims and outrage at the perpetrators of the recent hostage crisis in southern Russia that ended in the massacre of school children. He said nothing, however, about the way Vladimir Putin has used the tragedy to step up a five-year campaign to re-establish Russia as a highly centralised, vertical state with power concentrated in the Kremlin. Mr Putin has decided to abolish the direct election of regional governors. From now on, he will personally appoint governors, thereby calling into question Russia’s self-designation asafederal state and raising new concerns about the fate of pluralistic democracy there.

On a recent visit to Russia, I found a combination of alarm and resignation about how Mr Putin’s latest move fits all too logically with his ongoing effort to regulate and manipulate the dissemination of information. Russia no longer has an independent national television station. Journalists worry that censorship already extends to the print media and may soon reach the internet. Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of “glasnost”, or openness, was crucial to the end of the communist system, the USSR, the Soviet empire and the cold war. Now more than ever Russia needs glasnost and a free press, not least as an antidote to corruption of the kind that permitted terrorists to bribe their way past police checkpoints and into the doomed school.

An inescapable and complicating fact about the current situation is that Mr Putin is still very popular – not in spite of his authoritarian instincts, but partly because of them. His clampdowns have not much affected the lives of ordinary Russians. Russian experts on public opinion say that many feel his firm hand is necessary to preserve public security and national unity from the twin threats of terrorism and secessionism.

Meanwhile, the Russian economy is doing well, earning support for Mr Putin from a growing middle class and from western businessmen who have been investing in Russia for more than a decade. In their view, Mr Putin has administered a corrective dose of stability and predictability to a country that seemed to be lurching toward chaos in the free-for-all 1990s under Boris Yeltsin.

In economic policy, Mr Putin still qualifies as a reformer. One reason is that he trusts the team of liberals who are advising him in that area. He seems to be trying to replicate those ties of personal loyalty in the political realm by appointing presidential proconsuls in the regional capitals.

Mr Putin is attempting a Russian version of the Chinese model, strengthening political controls while opening the country up to market forces. He—and Russia—may not be able to have it both ways. Economic and political freedom are inextricably linked. A genuine rule-of-law society, which is a precondition for economic progress, requires a system of checks and balances that is impossible when power is concentrated in one office.

If Russia is to survive as a unitary state, it must resume its development as a federal and democratic one. The essence of democratic federalism is maximum self-governance at the local or provincial level. People are more likely to respect—and obey—authority if they feel it reflects their interests and is invested in leaders they have chosen.

Federalism makes a virtue of diversity. Russia is vastly diverse. The tsars and the commissars tried to impose unity and order by a more brutal version of the methods Mr Putin is now applying. They failed, and so may he.

The proximate cause for the recent crisis is the decade-old war in Chechnya. Mr Putin hopes to restore Moscow’s writ over Chechnya and prevent other actual or potential secessionists from following the Chechens’ lead. On the first score, it is hard to imagine that Chechnya will ever again, in any meaningful sense, be governed by Moscow. Whether it is too late for Ingushetia, Dagestan, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and other corners of Russia’s North Caucasus that are not yet household words—whether Russians’ nightmare of their country going the way of the Soviet Union comes true—depends on how long Mr Putin’s misguided experiment in hyper-centralisation lasts.

That, in turn, could depend, in some measure, on what Mr Putin hears from other leaders, especially fellow members of the Group of Eight—and most of all from his counterpart in the White House. While Mr Putin is representative of a widespread Russian resistance to westerners’ “preaching”, he still wants to be treated as a full member of this club of leading democracies, and he regards the US as its de facto chairman. Officials in Moscow say that, despite muted criticism from Washington, the policy of the Bush administration is more “understanding” than that of the European Union. Mr Bush’s UN speech confirmed their satisfaction on that score.

The west has a huge stake in how Russian democracy evolves in the coming years. If we learned nothing else from the 20th century, it is that the nature of Russia’s internal regime determines its external behaviour. A Russia that rules its own people by force and edict rather than consent and enfranchisement is virtually certain, sooner or later, to intimidate its neighbours and to make itself one of the world’s problems rather than a contributor to their solution.