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Sunday Herald on the Putin Era

The Sunday Herald has published a long feature article which weighs the legacy of the Putin era.

The charge sheet against Putin is, however, a long one. Since he assumed the Russian presidency on the last day of the last century, at least 20 journalists have died in suspicious circumstances. Shot, stabbed or poisoned, they have two things in common: no-one was convicted, or in most cases even arrested, after their deaths, and all of them had angered powerful vested interests. In 2004 American journalist Paul Klebnikov died in a hail of bullets on a Moscow street while in October of last year investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in the lift of her apartment block. Nobody has been brought to justice for either murder. That media freedom has been steadily eroded in the past seven and a half years is beyond question. All nationwide TV channels are under state control and the nightly news has come to resemble the Soviet newscasts of old. Changing channels doesn’t help: the news is the same on all of them. Putin giving instructions to his ministers, Putin visiting a factory, Putin shaking a foreign leader’s hand or Putin on holiday, and so it goes on. Newspapers, though a bit freer, have also come under increasing Kremlin control. In the last few years many of the country’s most influential titles – Izvestia, Kommersant and Nezavisimaya Gazeta – have been taken over by Kremlin-friendly oligarchs. Political freedoms have been gradually curtailed, often under the pretext of clamping down on “extremism” or fighting terrorism. Whereas in the past regional governors (who form a vital part of the system of governance in such a vast country) were elected, they are now appointed by local parliaments who almost always do what the Kremlin tells them to do. Kremlin opponents also face serious obstacles when it comes to staging protests. In the last month two opposition rallies, in Moscow and St Petersburg, have been brutally disrupted by baton-wielding riot police who claimed they were provoked by “extremists”. Not that the opposition enjoys widespread support; those rallies only attracted around 2000 people apiece, hardly a groundswell of popular discontent in a country of 144 million people. The Kremlin seems unready, however, to even tolerate poorly attended public displays of opposition. Equally, anyone who gets too big for their boots and looks like they might be a political threat is neutralised, often by being ridiculed in the press. In the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man and the head of the Yukos oil firm, the penalty was a good deal stiffer, of course. His political ambitions saw him sentenced to eight years in jail for various white-collar crimes; he is now serving time in a remote Siberian prison camp. Foreign and domestic human rights organisations have also had a rough ride. A new law gives the Kremlin unprecedented oversight of their activities and the power to shut them down at will. Under Putin, racist violence has exploded. Last year 53 people were killed and 460 injured in racially motivated attacks, according to the human rights centre Sova. At times Putin’s desire to make Russians feel good about themselves has appeared to promote an alarming “Russia for the Russians” mentality. New laws that took effect earlier this month banned non-Russians from working in the country’s food and clothes markets, for example. Critics also contend that high oil and gas prices have given Russia a weapon with which to bully disloyal neighbours. Both Georgia and Ukraine have been left in the cold temporarily by an indignant Moscow in recent years. And then there is Chechnya. It was Putin who prosecuted the second Chechen war in 1999 as prime minister, a hardline policy he continued when elevated to the presidency. That war is all but over but tens of thousands have died or simply disappeared in the intervening years. But what are negative points seen through a Westerner’s eyes are often plus points when filtered through a Russian prism or at the very least a price worth paying for stability and prosperity. In truth most ordinary Russians are more interested in their next foreign holiday, buying a new car, or securing a mortgage, than human rights abuses or Chechnya. Nor do many have much of a yearning for democracy; the concept was discredited in the 1990s when living standards plunged. The question now then is, will the man who has presided over a feel-good economic boom really stand down next year as promised. Uncertainty has crept in after some of Putin’s supporters called for the constitution to be changed to allow him to stay on; he insists he is really going. Either way, his legacy is assured. The two men in the running to succeed him are from his inner circle and would be certain to keep Russia on the course that he has set it. Most Russians believe that even if he does keep his word and step down he will not be far from the centre of power anyway, a sentiment he appeared to encourage in his final state-of-the-nation speech. “It would be premature,” he said, “to deliver my last political will and testament.”