31 May 2004
In government, what goes around comes around. In his annual state of the nation address last week, President Vladimir Putin made clear that he selects his tools of governance from the same shed as his Soviet predecessors once did. And his favorite tools are coercion and campaigns against internal enemies who are blamed for the transgressions of the regime.
Putin used the bully pulpit to issue a transparent warning to nongovernmental organizations critical of his record. Rather than defending "the real interests of people," Putin said, some NGOs have a "different objective": "getting financing from influential foreign and domestic foundations." Other NGOs "serve dubious group and commercial interests," he said.
The threat was nothing new. Back in February 1991, then-Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev declared that some ostensibly liberal organizations and the democratic media were in fact "agents of influence" defending foreign interests -- primarily those of the CIA and the like. By working for such hostile organizations, Gorbachev warned, democrats demonstrated that they were bent on the destruction of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev's comments were made at the tail end of perestroika, when proponents of democratic reform such as then-Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev and then-Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze were forced to resign, while advocates of the Iron Curtain and iron-fisted rule such as then-KGB chairman Vladimir Kruchkov were getting the upper hand over Gorbachev and taking control of the policy-making process.
In the twilight years of the Soviet Union, buffers such as the Communist Party Central Committee protected society to some extent from the excesses of hawks in the security services. If only to ensure its own survival, the Central Committee tried -- with questionable success -- to keep the hawks on a short leash and to exclude them from policy decisions.
In today's Russia, such buffers no longer exist. The country is now run by products of the Soviet and Russian security services. It is only natural that they should employ the same old methods they mastered in the secret police.
Putin's strong words should therefore not be viewed as a concession extracted by the siloviki, but as a logical step in the development of an authoritarian regime.
The president's message came through loud and clear: Dissent must be suppressed and alternative views of the nation's future must be silenced. The warning to Russian society was unambiguous: NGOs not yet controlled by the state can expect to come under increasing pressure from the regime. Further constraints will be placed on business in Russia to prevent the pluralism of market interests from entering the political realm. People whose personal fortunes and/or oppositional political views make them possible challengers to the throne can expect to be sent up the river.
Two main factors support such a pessimistic conclusion. First, authoritarian regimes are inherently volatile and unstable when exposed to the competing forces of a market economy. By suppressing dissent, Putin is therefore trying to reduce risks and promote stability in the short term.
Second, power and money go hand in hand. Concentration of political power in the hands of the ruling elite requires concentration of economic wealth, as well. Hence, nonmarket redistribution of wealth and property -- the sort of thing we have witnessed during the ongoing Yukos affair -- is essential for the survival of the regime.
But redistributing wealth by means of coercion is no simple task. It requires an elaborate ideological coverup aimed at achieving a national consensus in support of the regime's tactics. With xenophobia on the rise in Russia, the specter of an internal enemy in the service of foreign backers provides the perfect ideological smoke screen.
The government's control of the airwaves and its penchant for closed-door decision-making will help to conceal the real goals of property redistribution -- i.e., handing it over to a small group of Kremlin insiders -- and make it more palatable to the general public.
History, however, is filled with examples of authoritarian regimes that have eventually gone bankrupt regardless of the elaborate precautions taken by their leaders.
The Soviet Union was no exception. Russia won't be either.