As the United States looks anxiously for allies in the fight against Islamic terrorism, Russia is increasingly being welcomed as a bona fide member of the Western community of nations.
At the G8 summit last week in Kananaskis, Alberta, not only was Russia an important participant in talks on terrorism and nuclear proliferation but a decision was made to hold a G8 summit meeting in Russia in 2006. According to an official G8 statement, Russia’s enhanced role was recognition of the “remarkable economic and democratic transformation that has occurred in Russia in recent years, particularly under the leadership of President Putin.”
The “era of good feelings” in U.S. – Russian relations, however, may prove short lived. The reason is that geopolitical interests notwithstanding, the Russian leadership has made no real effort to adopt Western values, particularly respect for the individual and the value of human life.
In the two years since Putin became Russia’s president, he has become a hero in the West but his country has become less democratic rather than more. This has been reflected in the systematic elimination of independent centers of power and the prosecution of the increasingly barbaric war in Chechnya.
If the tendency toward authoritarianism is not reversed, Russia will increasingly find itself at odds with its new partners and a reversion to an anti-Western policy could become necessary in order for the ruling elite to survive.
Of the authoritarian aspects of Putin’s Russia, the most commented upon is the establishment of a “power vertical,” as opposed to a separation of powers.
Beginning in late 1999, Putin created a virtual presidential dictatorship. The Second Chechen War, which was launched in September, 1999, strongly affected the elections to the State Duma which were held three months later, leading to a groundswell of support for pro Putin parties who gained a strong majority in the legislative chamber. The combination of a Constitution that gave the President vast powers to rule by decree and a newly pliant legislature made Putin unchallengeable in Russia.
After he was elected President, Putin used his power to enact two measures that increased his authority still further. The first was to remove Russia’s governors from the Council of the Federation, the upper chamber of the parliament, and the second was to name presidential representatives in seven new districts or “okrugs” to reinforce the authority of federal ministries in the regions.
The result of these changes was that Putin became unassailable both at the federal level and in the regions.
The elimination of independent centers of power in the government, in turn, was accompanied by a crackdown by the government on civil society.
The first attack on civil society was the suppression of the independent media.
On June 7, the property of Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s most important independent newspaper, was seized to satisfy a libel judgment of $500,000 in favor of Mezhprombank, which the paper accused of participation in the Bank of New York scandal. The fine was roughly 100 times the size of the largest previous libel judgment against the Russian media and is widely believed to be the result of a political decision to close the paper. It came shortly after the sale of Obshchaya Gazeta, the only other independent Russian newspaper, to a St. Petersburg businessman who fired the paper’s entire staff and suspended publication.
The loss of Russia’s two most courageous newspapers came after the removal of management at the country’s only independent television stations, NTV and TV-6, as a result of pressure from state owned energy companies that had ties to the stations.
The result is that the Russian media is now completely under the Kremlin’s control. Limited criticism is still possible but exposes of fundamental importance - for example, the reporting in Novaya Gazeta and on NTV about the 1999 apartment house bombings – are now unlikely to appear in the Russian press.
The tightened control over the Russian media was complemented by a crackdown on independent social organizations.
The government began to create obstacles to the registration or re-registration of human rights organizations, independent trade unions, national cultural organizations, and ecological groups concerned with nuclear safety. In the Moscow oblast, only 12 per cent of the previously existing social organizations survived.
The government has advanced the claim that human rights organizations need to pay taxes on the services they provide and the beneficiaries of the help need to pay taxes on the “value” of the assistance. When this is not done, registration can be refused. In the case of unofficial trade unions, registration has been refused on the grounds that there were two trade unions in the same enterprise, in which case, the authorities registered the trade union that cooperated with the government and with management.
The result of this pressure is that vulnerable Russian citizens are deprived of their erstwhile defenders and government agencies and criminal groups can deal with them as they see fit.
Besides the suppression of independent sources of power in Russia, the government is conducting a barbarous war in Chechnya that weakens still further the democratic instincts of the society.
When the Second Chechen War began, many Chechens hoped that the Russian forces would bring order to what had become a lawless enclave. The behavior of the Russian forces, however, has united the population against the invader.
According to the best estimates, 2,000 persons have disappeared in Chechnya since the beginning of the Second Chechen War in 1999, after being stopped at checkpoints or arrested in their homes.
The deaths of at least a thousand others have been confirmed because their bodies were recovered in garbage dumps or fields. In some cases, the bodies were blown up with hand grenades to conceal signs of torture.
In most cases, the Russian soldiers who arrested Chechens in security sweeps were masked and without insignias. The numbers on their armored cars were covered with dirt. In response to protests from Russian and international human rights organizations, the Russian defense ministry issued order number 80 which demanded that numbers should be visible on armored personnel carriers taking part in security sweeps, that the commander should tell the head of the local Chechen administration what unit was involved, that soldiers that entered homes should introduce themselves and that the prosecutor should receive a list of those detained. To date, however, not a single point of this order has been fulfilled.
The scale of the killing is immense because, after years of warfare, there are no more than 750,000 Chechens presently living on the territory of Chechnya.
Besides indiscriminate killing, Russian troops in Chechnya have, since the spring of 2000, also been kidnapping Chechens for ransom. The captives, who vanish into Russian filtration camps, are often purchased back by their relatives for prices of up to $5,000. In many cases, those rescued are barely alive. The Russian forces also demand payment to return the corpses of Chechens to their families.
The Russians also seek deliberately to humiliate Chechens. According to corroborated reports, on July 12, 2001, in the city of Sernovodsk, 700 Chechen men were rounded up by Russian forces and forced to watch while a Chechen woman was raped in front of them. The men were taunted with calls to defend the woman’s honor and when 62 of the men tried to intervene, they were handcuffed to an armored personnel carrier and publicly raped. One of the men later committed suicide.
The nature of Russian atrocities has inspired speculation that they are part of a deliberate effort to prolong the war so that high ranking Russian military and political leaders can profit financially from looting, the hostage trade or the illegal smuggling of Chechen oil.
Russia’s increasing authoritarianism and the prolongation of the war in Chechnya have been little noticed in the West but they are a problem that cannot be ignored. The reason is that they lead to the degeneration of Russian institutions and the country’s further loss of moral orientation. The potential seriousness of this situation is illustrated by the fact that Russia is both one of the world’s most corrupt societies and the site of the world’s largest poorly guarded stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.
Russia needs to cooperate with the West but such cooperation will only work in the long run if Russia strengthens its democratic institutions. For this reason, it is important not to suspend criticism of limitations on democracy in Russia or human rights violations in Chechnya. The alternative is unwittingly to encourage developments in Russia that are not in our interest as we allow deception on Putin’s part to be met with self delusion on ours.
This article appeared in National Review Online, July 10, 2002.