December 29, 2005
International diplomacy’s game of musical chairs plays again at midnight on Saturday when Britain’s G8 presidency comes to an end and leadership of the world’s most exclusive political club passes for the first time to Russia. It raises the question of whether the Russian government will prove itself worthy of the status it is about to acquire or whether its G8 presidency is destined to be seen as an embarrassing anomaly.
The decision to include Russia in the roster of rotating presidencies marked the country’s acceptance at the top table of world affairs and was an explicitly political gesture. In terms of economic clout, Russia ranked lower than several potential members (and still does), but its size and importance, together with its status as a permanent member of the UN security council and a nuclear weapons state, qualified it for special treatment. More importantly, membership was seen as a reward for the decade of painful reform that followed the end of communism, and to encourage Russia’s continued adherence to the liberal democratic principles on which the G8 was founded.
It helped that western policy-makers craved a more predictable Russia and were willing to give Putin the benefit of the doubt when he assured them of his democratic intentions. At their first meeting in 2002, President Bush claimed to have looked into Putin’s soul and seen a man he could trust.
Three years later it is clear that these hopes have been confounded. Instead of putting reform on a more stable footing Putin has put it into reverse by adopting a profoundly authoritarian model of governance he calls “managed democracy”. This transformation has involved something far more subtle than a simple reversion to Russia’s totalitarian past. The constitutional trappings of contested, multiparty elections and representative institutions remain in place, but they have been emptied of any real democratic content as the conditions for Russia’s free internal development have been eroded. The scale of that erosion was made clear this week, with the resignation of Putin’s economic adviser Andrei Illarionov, one of the few remaining liberals in the inner circle, saying that Russia was no longer free or democratic.
The most obvious erosion has been the effective re-imposition of state control over the national television network. There is a noisy pluralism in bits of the media Putin can afford to ignore, but in the places ordinary Russians rely on for information, coverage is heavily slanted in favour of the Kremlin. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe election monitors’ report on the 2003 presidential elections stated bluntly that opposition candidates had been denied fair coverage and noted that television stations gave them a fraction of the extensive and largely positive coverage given to Putin. Since then, things have got even worse, with the forced closure of the remaining independent national television network and the dismissal of journalists who fail to toe the Kremlin line.
Space for the policies of the ruling elite to be effectively contested has been further constrained by an increasingly repressive attitude to the independence of Russian civil society. NGOs that ask difficult questions have been officially denounced as agents of foreign influence, while some have become the target of intimidation by the security services and subjected to occasional physical abuse. A law just passed by the Duma requires NGOs to be officially registered and empowers the authorities to close them down if they are deemed a threat to “national interests”. Even the British Council has been raided.
In the old days, state power arrived with a knock at the door in the middle of the night. In Putin’s Russia it arrives in the form of a falsified tax demand. It sounds comical, but the consequences can be equally dire. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of several oligarchs selectively prosecuted by the Kremlin, was sentenced to eight years in a Siberian labour camp in a tax case that almost all independent observers regard as politically motivated. Last week a British judge refused a request to extradite one of Khodorkovsky’s former colleagues on the grounds that the request had been “made for the purpose of punishing him on account of his political opinions”. In the legal world, at least, it is understood that rule of law no longer applies in Russia and that the judicial system has become an arm of the Kremlin.
Some will no doubt see this as just desserts for the scandal of Russia’s post-Soviet privatisation programme, but the objective of Putin’s campaign to “liquidate the oligarchs as a class” has not been to right past wrongs. The purpose has been to consolidate power at the centre and eliminate all rivals. The result has been the rise of a new oligarchy based on a fusion of economic and political power and, in particular, monopoly control of the energy sector by people at the highest reaches of the Kremlin.
The price of international silence about Russia’s authoritarian turn is high. On the day Putin returned from the G8 summit at Gleneagles to boast that not a single leader raised the Khodorkovsky case with him, the Russian prosecutor’s office opened a criminal investigation into the finances of Mikhail Kasyanov, the former prime minister and favourite to represent the liberal opposition in the 2008 presidential elections.
The closing of Russia will continue until there is a concerted effort by Europe and the US to force Putin to live up to his international obligations. The Russian president has played a clever hand in dividing western opinion and using energy as a strategic asset to further his foreign policy objectives. While some, like the outgoing German government, have pandered to this agenda, others have been far too fatalistic about their ability to influence Russian behaviour. The G7 became G8 through the desire to embrace a democratic Russia. The Russian presidency represents an ideal opportunity for western leaders to remind themselves of that fact and point out to President Putin that he is failing to honour his side of the bargain.