Putin’s democratic facade shouldn’t fool us any more

Today, President Vladimir Putin of Russia is expected to announce the name of his country’s new prime minister. According to one of the president’s political supporters, the mystery politician will be an “absolutely trusted man”, and will lead a new government which is stronger, more independent, and better able to make decisions than that led by the previous prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, who was fired last Tuesday.
On the surface, there is nothing disturbing about this event. The very words – “president” and “prime minister” – conjure up a friendly image of democracy and rule of law. Nobody could quarrel with the notion that the Russian prime minister ought to be trustworthy, or that his new government ought to be good at making decisions.
The difficulty, in the case of Russia, is that formal appearances disguise a somewhat different reality. This has long been the case. In 1839, the Marquis de Custine, a French aristocrat, visited St Petersburg and was horrified to discover Russian grandees sleeping on bug-ridden straw pallets, behind the facades of their grand palaces.
Nowadays, of course, the facades are not palaces but democratic institutions, and the reality is not straw pallets but an increasingly despotic political system. Clearly, the Russian president’s dismissal of the government was not, as it would have been in a true democracy, the culmination of a long political debate. Nor did it happen because the press or the public were clamouring for the government to go.
Instead, it came as a bolt from the blue: President Putin made a brief, emotionless address on state television, during which he did not criticise the work of the previous prime minister, but simply said he thought the decision “correct” at this particular time, which happens to be the middle of a presidential campaign, in which he has no serious rivals. The government itself was taken by surprise: a cabinet meeting scheduled for Tuesday morning was repeatedly postponed, and then cancelled altogether, a few minutes before the president sacked all of the cabinet’s members.
Many in Moscow have been trying, this week, to read the tea leaves, and to work out what the political significance of President Putin’s decision might have been. Some suspect that the former prime minister, Mr Kasyanov, fell out of favour because he was too vocal in his support for the recently jailed oil tycoon, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Others think that the president wants to dispose of the government’s few remaining “westernisers” – the politicians who believe in making the Russian economy more capitalist, and Russian society more European. Still others think the announcement was a campaign move, intended to make President Putin himself appear strong and decisive before the country goes to the polls on March 14.
The real point, though, is that no one in Moscow or anywhere else actually knows for certain why this arbitrary decision was taken. Despite the presence of formal democratic institutions, the Kremlin remains thoroughly opaque, and resists even rudimentary attempts to make it more transparent.
And this resistance is growing. Democracy, in the end, is about more than the occasional election. But since President Putin came to power, he has gradually removed most of the accoutrements that make democracy more than a mere formality. Thanks to President Putin, the most powerful Russian media, including all major television stations, are now owned by friends of the Kremlin.
Coverage of news unfavourable to the president, such as the war in Chechnya or the Russian army’s recent failed attempt to launch an ICBM missile, is brief or non-existent. Political opposition remains legal – there are, in fact, a few other people running for president – but only so long as opponents remain weak. Anyone who appears poised to gain real power is disposed of as quickly as Mr Khodorkovsky was arrested last autumn.
For the most part, President Putin has cleverly avoided large-scale arrests, or a “crackdown” that would cause a real reaction in the West. But there are signs that the American administration, at least, is finally beginning to see behind the facade. During a recent visit to Moscow, the American Secretary of State, Colin Powell, published an article noting that “certain developments in Russian politics and foreign policy” have given him pause. That was diplomatic language, but it is still farther than the British Government has managed to go.
From the very beginning, Tony Blair was one of President Putin’s greatest friends in the West, going out of his way to be photographed beside his friend Vladimir everywhere from the opera in St Petersburg to the woods around the Russian president’s dacha. Perhaps it is time that the British Prime Minister – however much he too might like to dismiss his Cabinet without explanation – also tried being less easily fooled.