To anyone studying Vladimir Putin over the last year, it was hard, even impossible, to believe he would voluntarily leave office. Everything he has done to concentrate all power into his hands and the Kremlin argued against it. Putin has simply achieved the unitary power that Bush only dreams about, the absolute power to dispense tens of billions of dollars, crush any critic, imprison any potential rival… without a single questioning or dissenting voice ever being raised. This kind of power hasn’t been seen since the 50’s. “Let’s face it. Putin is a dictator,” says Peter, a casino manager in a rare display of candor. [Casinos have a particular beef- Putin has exiled them to a few remote regions]. Putin has become a black hole, absorbing all power in Russia, even light, and the craven fealty with which he is held is appalling to see.
The stunning announcement of unknown loyalist Viktor Zubkov as Prime Minister was another display of Putin’s profound cynicism- the entire country existing as his personal plaything, and the mechanics bear that out. Zubkov was only informed of his ascension the day before, and within 2 days the rubber stamp Congress had overwhelmingly ratified the obscure financial investigator as Prime Minister 381-47, who immediately held a meeting dressing down Cabinet members and speculated on his potential for being President. Putin has to leave the Presidency after 2 terms, but is not prevented from coming back. Now speculation, even conviction, is that Putin will have his 66 year old Petersburg crony run for President, win (foregone), appoint Putin Prime Minister, then step aside after 6-12 months to allow the wildly popular strongman (70-80% approval) to return as President. Putin confirmed that in accepting running for the Duma at the head of United Russia’s list- Prime Minister was a “realistic idea”. The idea that Putin can just designate a nobody as successor and get him elected is indicative how far democracy has sunk in this land of maximum rulers, though of course Yeltsin set the pattern by appointing Putin President.
The destruction of Mikhail Gutseriyev, a hard-nosed Chechen-Ingush oil billionaire, is illustrative of Putin’s tendency to squash people almost as sport. Gutseriyev’s real crime was either to speculate on running for high office, or to dare to bid for pieces of Yukos, which everyone knew only Rosneft, the giant state oilco was allowed to steal. First he was forced to sell his oilco by government bullying to Kremlin frontman oligarch Deripaska- when he had the audacity to complain about it- in quick order, his accounts were frozen, his son died in a mysterious car crash without police or hospital report, arrests warrants for tax evasion and fraud were issued, and he fled the country. Triple billionaire to broken refugee criminal in 4 weeks. For good measure, the case against him was filed in 2 courts simultaneously, if one didn’t think it held water (which happened) the other would. And if neither did, the government would just do it again: there is no protection against double jeopardy in Russia. If the Kremlin wants you, innocence is not an option.
Zubkov, who helped in Putin’s first campaigns against the oligarchs, has pledged to fight corruption, which is rampant in the newly expensive Russia, but there is no acknowledgement of the spectacular corruption in the Kremlin, where cabinet members are CEO’s of the biggest companies in the world, even as they make multibillion dollar decisions crushing or absorbing competitors and enriching themselves; a cabal of KGB and St Petersburg Mayor’s office pals of Putin, who have bestowed on themselves the wealth of the kingdom. Possible heir Dep. Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev is chairman of metastasizing monopoly Gazprom; shadowy Pres. Dep. Chief of Administration Igor Sechin is the head of Rossneft, which became the largest oil company by gobbling most of Yukos’s assets- a takeover reputedly engineered by Sechin; Dresden KGB pal Sergei Chemezov runs massive arms dealer Rosoboronexport; Victor Ivanov, Personnel head of Presidential Staff- is chairman of Aeroflot and Almaz-Antey Missile Defense; Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov was head of pipeline monopoly Transnefteproduct. Mayor Luzhkov’s wife is a property manager billionaire in a city where her husband had the last word on property for 15 years. To invest the $120 billion stabilization fund, the Kremlin created what the Moscow Times called their “pocket bank”- the board members of which are mostly Kremlin cabinet members. All this stratospheric corruption and conflict of interest is so far above the clouds that it is invisible to average voters, who’ve accepted, as in Communist and Czarist times, that their opinion and vote has no weight and no power.
No, the corruption they speak of stamping out is that of Russia’s Mayors, virtually the last directly elected officials- dozens of whom have been arrested on charges as idiotic as illegally giving a woman an apartment or faking a college diploma. Any other center of power is seen as a threat by this administration, that must be forced to grovel, particularly if achieved through the ballot box. Even A Just Russia, the Kremlin’s invented liberal party created to siphon votes from the Communists may not pass the absurd artificial 7% minimum for representation in the Duma. Meanwhile, accused Litvenenko assassin Andrei Lugavoi may be elected to the Duma in clownish Zhirinovsky's party, because people think he's guilty, not in spite of it.
The battle over control of the immense power and money streams has broken into the open between 2 hugely powerful administration clans: Anti Narcotics + Tax Police chief Victor Cherkesov and his allies Pres. Security head Zolotov and Accounting Chamber head Stepashin; and the Pres. Administration dep. + Rosneft chairman Igor Sechin and his allies- FSB head Patrushev, and former Justice Minister Ustinov. The Sechin group just initiated a round of arrests of Cherkesov's (and Stepashin's) top people for illegal bugging in connection with the Three Whales furniture store smuggling investigation that brought down Prosecutor Ustinov last year. The arrest almost led to a gunfight between FSB and Drug Control agents in Domodedevo Airport.
The public is content with the economic boom created by the explosion in construction, foreign investment, and the wisdom of socking away $430 billion in reserves (while Bush runs higher yearly deficits + destroys the dollar). "Things were terrible 5 years ago, now I'm making 8 times more money", says Alexander Andreev, a computer consultant. "I don't even think about politics.. why bother, we can't do anything about it anyway," says Dima, an office manager.
Even when not overtly corrupt, Putin’s gigantism, his pathological urge to combine companies into huge state conglomerates, is manifestly unhealthy. Huge state corporations are unwieldy, slow, deaf, and blind- there was a reason these things were broken up. A huge state industry has no competition (if it does it swallows it), no investors’ voice, no pressure to modernize: to be efficient, fast, nimble, smart, … it is easier to just raid and pillage some other business. What is left is a sterile Soviet desert of huge clunky spastic firms with no real raison d’etre- unable to compete except by constantly gaming the system and abusing their power. Witness Shell’s Jerome Van der Veer after he’d been raped of his stake in the Sakhalin 2 oil fields, thank Putin for his support, in a display that could have come straight from a Stalinist show trial; or Gazprom reacting to the apparent Orange victory in Ukraine’s elections by demanding immediate $1.2 billion payment.
Vladimir Putin is a very smart man in some respects, able to recite facts and figures in 5 hour marathons; but willfully blind in others. Despite his huge popularity, his massive power, like a black hole, distorts time and space around him into an unhealthy combination of passivity, supplication, and corruption. The political landscape he has created is devoid of real free media, parties, elections, or alternatives- a Potemkin democracy of meaningless gestures and illusionary choices. It is possible that what comes after Putin will be even worse, partly because he's eradicated most civil society, any succession mechanism, and created an inverted pyramid with himself as the apex- a deeply unstable system. It would be better for Russia if he really left power completely in March, but there’s no chance of that. A black hole simply gets bigger and bigger. And as matter is absorbed it emits a last screech of brilliant intense radiation, the halo people see around Putin. Then, it is mashed into nothingness, and disappears forever from view.
Michael Hammerschlag (HAMMERNEWS), in Moscow, has been studying Russia for decades. His articles have appeared across 21 time zones- in the International Herald Tribune, Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Columbia Journalism Review, Honolulu Advertiser, Capital Times, MediaChannel, Scoop; and Moscow News, Tribune, Guardian, and Times.