Luttwak on the Return of Old Russia

The First Post is running a recent column by Edward Luttwak, a senior fellow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The e-zine is also running a cover story on the extradition of Russians living in London. putin_newyear.jpg “Once again, whoever sits in the Kremlin is not subject to the law and, instead, controls its application.”

Old Russia returns – with a new Tsar Litvinenko’s murder is the latest evidence of Putin’s dictatorship, says Edward Luttwak The accusation that the former KGB/FSB secret policeman Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned by his former colleagues to stop his denunciations of President Putin is all too plausible. But there is really no need to speculate about the murder of Litvinenko – only one of several recent victims – to form an opinion of Vladimir Putin’s regime. The fact is that we are witnessing a return to Old Russia. When the neat and Western-looking young law graduate from St Petersburg first became president in 1999, it seemed certain that he would strive to westernise Russia. His favourite subject was Russia’s urgent need for more legality in all things, with fair and independent courts, honest and professional police forces, even competent lawyers. Putin also seemed to favour foreign investment and the continued liberalisation of the Russian economy. Not much remains of these hopes. When Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then Russia’s richest man, started to campaign for the presidency in 2003, he was arrested and charged with tax evasion. In the ensuing trial, the judges rejected almost every defence motion, and accepted almost every prosecution motion, and their 662-page verdict in May 2005 repeated the prosecution’s accusations almost word for word. Even as Khodorkovsky’s giant oil company, Yukos, was taken away from him by further court actions of dubious legality, Western oil companies continued to invest vast sums in Russian oil and gas ventures. They may come to regret this, and soon. Russian authorities have now started to accuse Western oil companies that are investing some $37 billion in Sakhalin of ruining the environment. That could be true, even likely, except that the concerted Soviet-style propaganda campaign now underway to take away their property is based on showing again and again TV footage of dead salmon – which die every two years in a regular spawning cycle. That accusation could be true too, but that production consortia also include Russian companies – and it is only the Western partner that is accused. At the border crossings on the river Narva, between Estonia and Russia, there is an even more obvious indication of the way things are going. Because of a dispute with Poland, Khodorkovsky’s oil company, Yukos, was taken away from him by court actions of dubious legality. Russia is retaliating against all members of the EU by drastically slowing down customs procedures. Hundreds of trucks must wait for days on end to cross the border, some coming from as far away as southern Spain. It is now very cold in Narva, there are no facilities for the drivers to eat or wash, and they must keep engines running to keep warm. Elsewhere, some temporary arrangement would soon be found to avoid this unnecessary hardship, but the Russian officials at the border are entirely unmoved, as are their superiors, who indeed find it curious that anyone should ask them to care for the wellbeing of anonymous truck drivers.