Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Good editorial today in the Washington Post on Vladimir Putin's sudden crackdown on corrupt oligarchs. It's been a shrewd strategy of his for a while--what, are you gonna get mad that the president is finally cracking down on the epidemic corruption of business barons?--but it's an embarassingly transparent one.

You don't have to be an expert on Russian politics to know that among the oligarchy, corruption is absolutely the norm and the great wealth and power they enjoy came from illegal insider moves during the massive privatization post-1991. It would be pointless to bring these robber barons to justice, because it would effectively wipe out the private sector. It's that big.

But as this editorial notes, Putin struck a sort of tacit deal with the oligarchs upon attaining office: keep your nose clean, stay out of politics, and I won't bother with looking into how you got your holdings. Since then, there have been 3 major busts: Vladimir Gusinsky (owner of NTV, a media empire critical of the Kremlin), Boris Berezovsky (another media baron who was guess what? critical of the Kremlin), and now Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the westernizing Yukos oil baron who was (believe it or not!) financing opposition parties.

I was in Moscow when Gusinsky went down, and I remember asking a young guy in the bar what he thought about it. He was far less suspicious than we Americans, claiming that Gusinsky was a criminal and it's good that Putin is finally cleaning up shop. "Yes," I protested, "but they're all criminals. Don't you think it's funny that he's picking on the guys who don't like him?" He shrugged it off, unconcerned.

This crackdown on competing power interests is only one in a long string of troubling indicators for Putin's domestic policy. Though one ought not be surprised that the former KGB darling turn out to be less than Thomas Jefferson, it's still disturbing. This pressure may have a lot to do with the fact that Putin faces re-election soon and would rather not be bothered with an organized opposition. After he wins his next term, let's hope he can turn his attention to some real reforms at home. Breath is not being held.


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