Master of the puppets to return to the Kremlin

Last week’s announcement that Vladimir Putin will run for President in 2012 shows the transition from democracy to dictatorship in Russia is complete. But the West continues to put its head in the sand.

Many doubt that Medvedev ever really held the reigns.
Will James
On 29 September 2011 09:13

It is official: Russian democracy is well and truly dead.

The last great hope – that the occasional murmurings of (relatively) liberal dissent emanating from Dmitry Medvedev’s office since 2008 might develop into a genuine competition for power between the President and his omnipotent Prime Minister – has been dashed by Medvedev’s announcement that Vladimir Putin should be United Russia’s presidential candidate in 2012.

Medvedev’s perfectly choreographed proposal, and Putin’s swift and cynical acceptance, comprehensively ends any lingering doubts over who the real powerbroker in Russian politics is.

Since Medvedev became President there have been persistent hopes that he would be able to shake off the insidious influence of his predecessor, and that his occasional bouts of independence on issues such as corruption and economic reform could generate a more dynamic and open political environment in the Russian Federation.

Any such optimism is now entirely at an end.

Putin’s populist brand of aggressive nationalism, underpinned by Russia’s burgeoning energy resources and the brutal implementation of the “KGB state”, has seen him eclipse all other challengers to dominate Russian politics.

This has been accomplished with a steady erosion of the infant democratic institutions and values created in Russia during the Yeltsin era in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russia today is a country where human rights abuses are rampant, the free press is curtailed, opposition groups are marginalised, organised crime and corruption are endemic, and poverty and underdevelopment continue to plague vast swathes of the Russian population.

Opponents of Putin, such as journalist Anna Politkovskaya, have been murdered in suspicious circumstances.

And in the realm of foreign policy, Putin’s revisionist drive to arrogantly retain and enhance Russian influence in the country’s “near abroad” has seen aggressive attempts to undermine pro-Western neighbours and seek to reverse the post-Cold War momentum of democracy and liberalisation in the old Warsaw Pact bloc, the 2008 invasion of Georgia being the starkest example of the lengths to which Russia would go to protect its great power status in Eastern Europe.

In the face of such belligerence and intimidation, Western politicians and corporations have taken the moral low road, combining a not too subtle blend of supplication and cowardice in a crass attempt to placate the Russian Bear.

The Obama Administration, in its all-consuming effort to distance itself from George W Bush, launched itself into a misguided ‘re-set’ with Moscow, scrapping the long-planned Bush-era missile shield in Central Europe, abandoning Washington’s allies in Poland and the Czech Republic in the process, and signalling to all aspiring ex-communist democracies in Eastern Europe that Moscow still calls the shots in their neighbourhood.

However, it is EU members who are most consistent in showing pusillanimity in their dealings with Putin’s Russia.

This is perhaps most clear in the blinkered relationship between Russia and the EU’s most powerful state – Germany. German political elites have fawned over Putin, most disgracefully former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, whose unseemly defence of Mr Putin’s rule was rewarded with becoming chairman of the controversial Nord Stream pipeline consortium between Russia and Germany following his departure from office.

A sign of the continued intimacy between Germany’s elites and Putin came in July this year, when until a howl of condemnation from across the world forced a retraction, the prestigious German Quadriga freedom prize – which is dedicated to “all those whose courage tears down walls and whose commitment builds bridges”, and whose past recipients include Mikhail Gorbachev and Vaclav Havel – was awarded to Russia’s authoritarian Prime Minister.

Nor is the UK immune from bending its knee to Moscow. David Cameron’s recent trade visit saw the British Prime Minister grovel before the throne of the diminutive Tsar, choosing to all but discard the fact that Russian dissidents have been assassinated on British streets and British citizens have had entire businesses and assets stolen from them by the Russian authorities, all to cash in on the potential profits that lie in Russia’s oil and gas rich economy.

And in the business world, where one would hope that international companies would demand a minimum of corporate governance, the approach has been craven to the point of self-punishing.

The ongoing saga over BP’s involvement in the Sakhalin-2 gas deal continues to oscillate between tragedy and farce, as it and other major global energy companies such as Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell absorb repeated Kremlin-backed corporate raids and politically motivated investigations, all in an attempt to gain even the most meagre sliver of Russia’s oil and gas revenue.

As Edward Lucas states in his book, The New Cold War, “Western energy companies are so desperate for a share – any share – of Russia’s hydrocarbon reserves that they will do anything rather than complain [about Kremlin interference].”

The real tragedy of the West’s approach, however, is how by failing to confront Russia’s downward spiral into authoritarianism – in the mistaken belief that it is better to be a partner, rather than an excluded adversary of a powerful Russia – the West has unwittingly overestimated Russia’s long-term economic prowess under the dead hand of Vladimir Putin’s model of “sovereign democracy”.

As The Economist notes, “Mr Putin’s system of governance, based on distributions of rent, desperately needs a source of growth. He will return to the Kremlin at a time when corruption-weary Russian businessmen are taking their capital out of the country, when Russia’s growing expenditure needs are outpacing the oil price needed to fund them and when his much-hailed stability has turned into stagnation.”

Following a 2008 constitutional amendment altering presidential terms from four years to six, Putin could conceivably remain in power until 2024, in his Chernenko-esque early seventies.

Whilst we live in a world where the likes of Hosni Mubarak can no longer take uninterrupted and unchallenged rule for granted, the West cannot simply sit back and allow Putin to dominate Eastern Europe whilst courting him for economic rewards.

Western leaders need to drag their heads out of the sand, before more post-Soviet democracies are dragged back into Russia’s pernicious “sphere of influence”.

Will James is a freelance writer and political analyst. Follow him on Twitter: @wmhjames

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