One famous Russian poet wrote a century and a half ago: “Blessed are those who visit this world in its decisive moments.” He was right. It is a real honor to observe events that will change the world for decades, if not centuries, in the future. Because of the events in Russia, now is one of these decisive moments. It seems to me that right now Russia is in the middle of a major political crisis.
Before Oct. 25, Russia seemed to be firmly settled into a political order that some political scientists charitably called a ‘guided democracy.” According to Yevgenya Albats, a famous Russian journalist and a current visiting professor at Yale, Russia has not had freedom of speech for over a year. Important political positions are still elected; however, every election that President Putin’s administration considered important was fixed. No ballots were falsified, but the government made sure that every single media source supported pro-Putin candidates and that the names of strong opposition candidates disappeared from the ballot, according to Polit.ru, an independent internet-based news source. Given the lack of any tradition of an independent judiciary in Russia, most courts also caved quickly to political pressure. Formal institutions became increasingly irrelevant. According to Gleb Pavlovsky, an influential Russian political commentator, two factions within Putin’s administration made all of the important decisions.
The first faction could be designated as the “liberals,” led by Putin’s former Chief-of-Staff Alexander Voloshin. The liberals were not interested in such trifling things as freedom of speech or free elections. Still, they did understand the fact that Russia needed to conduct economic policy that would encourage investment and promote economic growth. The recent yearly GDP growth of over 6 percent for the last four years in Russia is largely due to the reforms that this faction promoted. In general, Voloshin’s group realized that investors’ confidence is of paramount importance for economic growth and thus shielded businesses from government harassment. They also recognized that it is necessary to at least pretend to follow the formal channels, like legislatures and courts.
The second faction consists of Putin’s old KGB buddies. They do not hold any particular political preferences, according to Albats. Their main goal is to maintain order and to impose unlimited control of the state over Russian people. Their grasp of economic matters seems to be minimal. Whatever economic views they have seem to be closely aligned with the old Soviet method of command and control. They have no regard for legislatures or courts.
Until Oct. 25, these two groups seemed to balance each other out. On Oct. 25, it became obvious that the balance was broken when Russian security services arrested Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the richest men in Russia and head of the Yukos oil company.
Here in the United States, Khodorkovsky is a symbol of a successful and honest Russian businessman. Khodorkovsky was the first major Russian businessman to realize that honesty is immensely profitable. He made Yukos one of the most lucrative, and at the same time most transparent and law-abiding, companies in the world. Very few companies could boast better corporate governance standards. His enormous respect, influence and success earned him his share of detractors. Many of these detractors come from Putin’s KGB gang. They launched a campaign to destroy Khodorkovsky.
Putin’s KGB hacks, backed by the law enforcement agencies, decided that if they dug through Yukos files long and hard, they would be able to come up with some infraction legitimate enough to put Khodorkovsky in jail. If they could prove that Khodorkovsky broke the law and deserved to go to prison, both the West and liberals within Putin’s administration would be mollified. After several months of constant searches of Yukos offices and incessant interrogations of Yukos officials, they could not come up with anything. Finally, on Oct. 25, KGB apparatchiks were done “playing democracy.” Khodorkovsky was seized and thrown in jail with complete disregard to any normal legal procedures.
President Putin should have restrained radical elements in his administration. Instead he decided to back their decision. On Oct. 29, Alexander Voloshin resigned his position as Putin’s Chief-of-Staff. The battle between two factions probably raged for months, but it is clear that Voloshin’s group is now out of power. The KGB faction is in full control, and they are not wasting any time. They have already interrogated several regional parliamentarians about their voting records that happened to be favorable to one of Yukos’ officials. These parliamentarians have immunity from prosecution, but to these security services the immunity is irrelevant. In an unprecedented move, the Attorney General’s Office confiscated over 40 percent of Yukos’ shares, which belong not only to Khodorkovsky but also to several Western investors. These developments are only the tip of an iceberg of troubling developments.
Some Western analysts predict that Putin may lose the upcoming election because of these events. They do not realize that an election could be indefinitely postponed or cancelled if the security services feel that Putin may lose. The old KGB guard that now controls the government does not like elections. Back in 1996, heads of law enforcement agencies urged then-President Yeltsin to cancel presidential elections that were ultimately held that year. Unlike Yeltsin, Putin will probably be much more receptive to their ideas.
The new order makes one regret the old one. I fear that Russia’s policies will shift towards the old Soviet methods and practices.
Boris Volodarsky is a junior in Trumbull College.