Putin’s Next Power Play

Jailing billionaires is just the beginning; he wants to be Russia’s president-for-life.

Better get used to him

Grateful for any ally—no matter how brass-knuckled—in the war against terror, the United States has ignored the escalating authoritarianism of Russian President Vladimir Putin over the past few years. It’s just as well, too: After throwing into jail the country’s most powerful businessman (and a key potential future political opponent), one of Putin’s next power plays will most likely be to snuff out the remaining embers of Russia’s fragile democracy by bringing about changes to the country’s constitution that will allow him to stay in office for as long as he pleases.

If Putin succeeds in further extending the authoritarian nature of his presidency, he may be in office long after George W. Bush—and his successor and perhaps a few American presidents after that—leave the scene. Arguably, a permanent President Putin wouldn’t be such a terrible thing for the United States and its exclusive focus on fighting terror, given Putin’s record of playing ball with the Americans. It won’t be such a great deal for Russia, though, where any semblance of democracy, freedom of expression, and the rule of law will increasingly apply only at the state’s whim.

Putin’s latest show of strength started back in July, when the top associate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the CEO and principal shareholder of Yukos Oil Co., now the fourth-largest oil producer in the world, was thrown in jail on charges of fraud relating to a 1994 privatization. A little later, Yukos and some of its employees were charged with bribery, murder, and corruption. On Oct. 25, Khodorkovsky himself was arrested and charged with stealing from the state, tax fraud, and several other transgressions. (See the Oct. 28 “International Papers” column for press reactions to the arrest.) Five days later, the Russian government took the extraordinary step of seizing a 44-percent stake in Yukos, and soon thereafter Khodorkovsky resigned as chief executive of the company.

Khodorkovsky is part of a small group of well-connected Russian businessmen who became absurdly wealthy in the country’s privatization process in the mid-’90s, through shenanigans that make events at Enron and WorldCom look like playtime in the park. Any of these oligarchs could have been singled out by Putin for punishment, but Khodorkovsky pasted a “Kick Me” sign on his back earlier this year when he began to support opposition parties and didn’t dispute rumors that he might someday run for president. Political aspirations aren’t usually an imprisonable offense, but Khodorkovsky was violating a deal that Putin made with the oligarchs early in his term, under which the president said he would ignore the methods by which the oligarchs amassed their wealth—as long as they stayed out of politics.

So it was no surprise when Putin went after the unrepentant Khodorkovsky. Putin rose to power and popularity in part through starting Russia’s second war in five years in the breakaway territory of Chechnya, and during his reign, freedom of expression in Russia has dropped to a stage whisper. Putin has neutered the Duma, the lower house of parliament, into little more than a debate club and has thrown the already uneven balance of power between the branches of government completely off-kilter in favor of the executive. He has also stocked all levels and departments of his administration with former KGB cronies to ensure that things are done his way throughout the government bureaucracy. Through jailing Khodorkovsky, Putin both sidelined—possibly permanently—a possible future political opponent and won some cheap political points from an electorate that generally despises the oligarch class.

The international community—with the United States as ostrich-in-chief—has responded to Putin’s excesses of the past few years with deafening silence, punctuated only by an occasional petite peep of protest. Russia’s cooperation with the American war on terror ensured that Putin would enjoy carte blanche to do pretty much whatever he pleased on his home turf.  So it’s not surprising that the U.S. State Department did little more than wonder aloud whether the arrest was politically motivated. Russia’s response had a swatting-flies-with-a-sledgehammer ring to it, decrying American criticism as “tactless and disrespectful.”

“There’s really no doubt at all that the attack on Khodorkovsky is motivated by politics,” said Alexander Bim, a political analyst at IMAGE-Contact Consulting Group in Moscow—a claim strengthened by the resignation of Putin’s chief of staff, apparently in protest of the jailing of Khodorkovsky. Meanwhile, Putin’s attempts to reassure investors in Russia that a broader nationalization of assets controlled by the oligarchs is not in the cards have a ring of desperation to them, since his government has lost much of its economic policy credibility at this point.

Russia’s temper tantrum, though, is part of Putin’s effort to warn the international community—and the United States in particular—away from raising its voice as Putin tightens his grip a bit more. If pro-Putin forces expand their influence in the Duma in the upcoming Dec. 7 parliamentary elections—which, following the politically popular attack on Khodorkovsky, appears increasingly likely—Putin’s next power play will be to arm-twist the new deputies into amending Russia’s constitution to extend the presidential term past four years or permit a sitting president to stay in office for more than two terms. Even though Putin will almost certainly win a second term in presidential elections scheduled for March 2004, the growing authoritarianism of his presidency suggests that he likes power too much to not at least try to change the rules of the game: Since Putin has made expanding the realm of his control one of the foundations of his presidency, it would be both out of character and a policy disconnect for him to not follow the process to its logical end. And Putin’s former KGB friends will likely try to get him to remain in power to allow them to continue to reap the financial benefits that result from being close to the highest circles of government.

Putin has denied any interest in extending his stay in office. But in last Tuesday’s Financial Times, an old political ally—Putin’s former boss, as a matter of fact, who is now the head of a struggling effort to reunite Belarus (one of the most backward, and pro-Russian, of the former Soviet republics) with Russia—suggested that Putin could become president of that new union and thus get around the pesky Russian constitutional term limit. “After the end of his second term, [Putin] needs to have [another] first but very long term,” Pavel Borodin was quoted as saying. While Borodin may be trying to get in the president’s good graces, he could also be sending up a trial balloon on Putin’s behalf.

The United States has probably already decided that badgering Russia over the niceties of property rights, the rule of law, and human rights isn’t worth the cost of alienating a key ally in the war on terror. So there won’t be more than a murmur of protest when Putin carries out his next power play—in no small part because American policymakers wouldn’t be too upset with a President-for-Life Putin who would ensure Russia’s continuing cooperation in the war on terror, in stabilizing Central Asia and the Caucasus, and in laying the groundwork for increased U.S. investment in Russia’s oil industry. As for freedoms in Russia? Never mind that.