Russia’s 9/11

Our own president, George W. Bush, has come to recognize Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anti-democratic proclivities very late in the game — last week, to be precise.

Instead of giving sustained attention to Putin’s behavior and the rapid erosion of Russian institutions, Bush gave him a free pass in exchange for supporting our own war on terror and for muting his opposition to the war in Iraq. This could turn out to be a very tragic and costly mistake, both from the standpoint of what happens in Russia and what it will mean for us.

Many Russian commentators have described the massacre of children and parents in the town of Beslan, in the Russian republic of North Ossetia, as Russia’s Sept. 11. While far from being the first major terrorist attack suffered by Russia, its scale and the tragic loss of life evoked the same sense of shock and vulnerability as 9/11 did for Americans. The initial reaction of Putin was to speak in vague terms about an international conspiracy to tear off a piece of Russia, something that he insisted no one would attempt even if Russia had not been weakened as a result of the Soviet collapse and misdirected attempts at reform in the 1990s. The subtext of his remarks, clear to Russians, is that ultimately the United States was to blame.

The steps Putin unveiled last week show that he views democratic procedures not just with suspicion, but contempt. Political opposition, checks and balances, compromise, adherence to constitutional provisions; he views all of these as luxuries that Russia cannot afford if it is to conduct an effective war on terror. This is nothing new: In four years, Putin has already systematically undermined nearly every political institution in Russia. The Duma (lower house of parliament) has been turned into an extension of the Kremlin, dominated by a single party. The Russian senate (Federation Council), which is supposed to represent the regions, is now nothing more than a group of “yes men” who answer to the president. Most disturbingly, Russia’s once-vibrant national television has been fully tamed to the point that a phone call from the president’s office can result in the immediate cancellation of any program or the firing of any editor or journalist.

An important element of Putin’s response to Beslan was designed to eliminate the phenomenon of independent governors in Russian regions. Next year, Putin will begin appointing governors, and they will serve at his whim. For the past 10 years, governors, who have almost unchecked power in their regions, have been popularly elected. Since becoming president in 2000, Putin has had a mixed record in attempting to influence the outcome of these elections, though he has succeeded in increasing the instruments of leverage over governors once they are in power. In effect, Putin has used the tragedy in Beslan to justify something he has wanted to do for years, but was constrained from doing.

It should be said that this is not nearly as damaging to Russia’s future in the short term as what Putin has done over the past four years to the media. Gubernatorial elections were notoriously subject to manipulation; if not by Putin, then by regional elites. Dirty tricks, vote fraud, vote buying, the misuse of courts and police to favor one candidate over another — all were common in regional elections. The destruction of independent media means that it is increasingly difficult for people to get a sense of what is really happening in their own country. The ongoing war in Chechnya, indisputably the source of Russia’s problems with terror, has virtually disappeared from television newscasts. Most Russians are unaware that Chechen civilians are the targets of pro-government death squads. They are also unaware of how many Chechen children were killed in indiscriminate aerial bombings by the Russian air force.

Putin’s contention that appointed governors will be more effective than those who won elections is questionable. In the cases where Putin has succeeded in getting his candidate elected, many have turned out to be incompetent or worse. Putin has often favored former generals and FSB officers (the FSB is the successor agency to the Soviet KGB) who are good at discipline, but clueless in politics. In Ingushetia, the region next to North Ossetia that was home to some of the Beslan attackers, Putin arranged the victory of Murat Zyazikov, a former FSB officer. Zyazikov has conducted an aggressive crackdown on Islamic groups in the region, resulting in the radicalization of many and an upward spiral of instability and terrorist attacks.

In the past four years, well before Beslan, Putin has shifted financial resources to the military and police. The FSB’s budget, for instance, is now three times larger than it was in 2000. As a result, Russia is no safer, corruption remains rampant and crime rates continue to soar. The path to a society that is capable of solving its own problems is not going to be found by undermining democratic institutions, no matter how imperfect they are. Nor will it be found by building up blunt instruments of repression. Instead, Russia needs to take the hard steps necessary to improve and nurture democratic institutions. Clearly, Putin is not the person to do this, and the next four years appear to be lost from the perspective of Russia’s political development.

Darrell Slider is a professor of government and international affairs at USF and teaches courses on contemporary Russia.

For the 2004-05 academic year, he is a visiting Fulbright professor in Moscow at the Higher School of Economics. He has published extensively on Russian regional politics.