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Anders Aslund on Putin, Power, and Corruption in Russia

Excerpts from Anders Aslund’s new article:

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Putin ponders strategy to retain power By ANDERS ASLUND During his launch into an anti-American tirade in Munich recently, Vladimir Putin was only speaking his mind . He accused the United States of having “overstepped its national borders in every way: in the economy, in politics, and in the humanitarian sphere it imposes its policies on other states.” Given the U.S. troubles with Iraq, it’s natural the Russian president would thrive on American weakness. But his speech was as notable for what it said about his own and Russia’s domestic politics. Putin obviously thinks he is riding high. The Russian economy is booming. Incredibly, in the past seven years, Russia’s gross domestic product has grown by 500 per cent, measured in current dollars (from $200 billion in 1999 to $1 trillion last year). The world is desperate for Russia’s oil and gas, and Putin remains astoundingly popular at home. His successor is certain to be hand-picked by him. One can only marvel at how adeptly he handles a 3 1/2-hour televised news conference, with detailed answers, alternating charm and combativeness. Despite all that, Putin has painted himself into a corner as he faces the end of the two terms in office that the Russian constitution allows him. This is a man who speaks the language of a modern leader trying to rebuild his country, when in fact he and his cronies have really just wanted to enrich themselves. Having spent his time as president undermining democracy, property rights, the free press and the rule of law by taking over Yukos oil (and throwing its owner into a Siberian prison) and then other big companies, Putin and his coterie must now cling to power somehow, or risk losing it all if they cannot stage-manage a transition to the proper person. The tolerance of corruption in the Putin regime is astounding. Recently, for instance, a Swiss court established that Leonid Reiman, Russia’s minister of communications and a close friend of Putin’s, was the owner of telecommunications assets in Russia worth more than a $1 billion. But this has not been reported in major media in Russia, and Reiman remains at his post without having offered any explanation or apology — only an implausible blanket denial. How can Putin and his cronies give this up? It seems clear that Putin has these worries in mind when he fulminates on the world stage against the United States. Such words have the effect of increasing his popularity and therefore his grip on the country, which has been suffocated by his near-total control of television stations, newspapers, nominations of candidates, political parties and even public meetings. The evidence of a growing Russian authoritarianism is clear: Russia is one of the few countries that has declined since 2000 from “partly free” to “not free,” according to Freedom House’s meticulous ratings. … Nevertheless, Putin has managed to charm some Western leaders — among them former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, outgoing French President Jacques Chirac and, most notably, U.S. President George W. Bush. Just this month, Bush told the Wall Street Journal: “Vladimir Putin has kept his word on everything he’s said to me.” Well, then he cannot have said much. Putin reciprocated in his anti-American Munich speech: “I consider the president of the United States my friend. He is a decent person.” He could as well have said: “He is a useful fool.” … Given what’s at stake, the United States and the EU can no longer be a mere bystander in this drama. Six years of soft policy on Russia have done nothing but encourage the Kremlin’s anti-Western stand. Bush could learn a lesson from Mikheil Saakashvili, president of Georgia, to carry a big stick when dealing with Putin. When Bush compliments Putin, he evokes only contempt in the Kremlin. Former president Ronald Reagan knew how important it was to speak the truth loudly and clearly. Vice-President Dick Cheney’s speech in Vilnius, Lithuania, last May was a welcome departure, which enraged the Kremlin. It’s the time for the White House to follow through.