Commentary Magazine


Vladimir Putin, Victim?

“Instruction number one for obtaining full power has been completed.” With that sentence, uttered by Vladimir Putin just after his election to succeed Boris Yeltsin more than a decade ago, the paradigm of Kremlin control had shifted immeasurably. Putin made the remark–according to Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, who spoke to witnesses–at a private ceremony at the old KGB headquarters on the occasion of a Stalin-created holiday in honor of the secret police.

That sentence was a promise fulfilled. The heirs to the KGB, with Putin at the helm, have consolidated control of Russian political life. And that sentence is what came to mind when I read this pro-Putin screed from Stephen F. Cohen. The headline, which accurately sums up the post, is “Stop the pointless demonization of Putin.” This is the same Putin whose office today said any Russian protesters who hurt a police officer should have their “livers smeared all over the asphalt.” But Cohen has more to say, including the claim that “there is no evidence that any of these allegations against him are true, or at least entirely true.” But it turns out Cohen has a funny definition of the terms he uses.

For example, he says “if Putin really were a ‘cold-blooded, ruthless’ autocrat, tens of thousands of protesters would not have appeared in Moscow streets, not far from the Kremlin, following the December presidential election.” First of all, Cohen should consider the possibility that tens of thousands were protesting the fact that Putin is a ruthless autocrat. But leaving that aside, by Cohen’s definition the Arab Spring was pointless. Egyptians wouldn’t have flooded Tahrir Square if Hosni Mubarak were really a ruthless autocrat. The Green Movement in Iran, too, must have looked like a parade of fools to Cohen.

It turns out, however, that Cohen has identified the real culprit for us: Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin, the stubborn and brave revolutionary who risked life and limb to put a stake in the heart of global Communism, is Cohen’s real enemy. That’s revealing in and of itself. But Cohen couches his critique of Yeltsin in terms he thinks the West would be silly enough to swallow.

It was Yeltsin who initiated the “de-democratization,” says Cohen. How? In part because he “‘privatized’ the former Soviet state’s richest assets on behalf of a small group of rapacious insiders.” Privatization is an essential component of democratization, of course. And many of the “oligarchs” made their fortunes not by cashing a check handed to them by Yeltsin but by outmaneuvering the state during the privatization process, most notably through the “loans for shares” scandal in which bankers wrested control of state assets by taking them as collateral for government loans and then rigging auctions to claim the majority of shares.

And that actually gets at the fallacy of Cohen’s comparison between Yeltsin and Putin. Cohen says Yeltsin presided over a period in which journalists were killed with impunity and corruption was rampant, and that Putin was bequeathed this as-yet-unreformed system. The difference, though, is contained in the quote above. Many of Yeltsin’s failures stemmed from his lack of control. Media magnates operated with impunity precisely because they had independence from, and often power over, Kremlin insiders. Corruption was rampant because the lightning transition left the security services in disarray and economic enforcement measures all but absent. (That’s how “loans for shares” came about in the first place; the Russian government couldn’t get anyone to pay their taxes and thus had no money to pay for the federal budget.)

This is what Putin reversed. He jailed or exiled media magnates who wouldn’t take orders. He renationalized energy firms and imprisoned their executives. He turned the Russian parliament into a virtual rubber stamp. And he empowered the FSB far beyond anyone’s imagination save his own.

As Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan explain in The New Nobility, members of the security services were “left behind” in the transition after the fall of the Soviet Union. Under Putin, however, “former and current security service agents permeated the ranks of business and government structures.” Under Putin, the security services have become, Soldatov and Borogan write:

something very different from either the Soviet secret services or the intelligence community in Western countries. In some ways the FSB most closely resembles the ruthless mukhabarat, the secret police of the Arab world: devoted to protection of authoritarian regimes, answering only to those in power, impenetrable, thoroughly corrupted, and unopposed to employing brutal methods against individuals and groups suspected of terrorism or dissent.

Those “brutal methods” presumably include “livers smeared all over the asphalt.” And that’s just what they’ll admit to in public. The whole purpose of the “power vertical” is that everyone is ultimately answerable to Putin. So Cohen absolves Putin of the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya, because he hasn’t seen the Russian police produce hard evidence of Putin’s involvement (seriously). Cohen’s Russia is the land of coincidence. And it doesn’t hold up to even the slightest scrutiny–not to mention Putin’s own account of his intentions. But if privatization is the root of the problem for Cohen, then it’s not de-democratization he’s really worried about, is it?

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