- Reading RussiaIt's No Mystery
Like a doctor diagnosing a patient's disease before attempting treatment, one must understand the Putin regime in order to cure the dangerous infection that it has become. The idea that this Russian government is still a mystery, however, let alone a Churchill-evoking riddle or enigma, is absurd.
The real issue has been the willful, even enthusiastic, blindness of political leaders and commentators regarding the true nature of Putin's regime. They have no interest in dealing with Putin's Russia as the police state that it has become, so they put their heads firmly in the sand instead. It is a mistake to let the leaders of the Free World off the hook for this cowardice by blaming it on mystification.
Putin's government may be historically unique, but that does not mean that its nature is difficult to understand. This Kremlin is partly an oligarchy, with a small, tightly connected gang of wealthy rulers. It is partly a feudal system, broken down into semiautonomous fiefdoms in which payment is collected from the serfs, who have no rights, while the smaller lords pay the bigger ones.
A historian looks at the Kremlin today and sees elements of Benito Mussolini's "corporate state," Latin American juntas, and Mexico's old pseudodemocratic PRI machine. A fan of Mario Puzo's Godfather novels will see the Putin government more accurately still. Looking at the regime's insistence on strict hierarchy, unquestioning clan loyalty, and a stern code of secrecy, plus its taste for extortion and supreme urge to keep the revenue flowing at all costs, this observer will see the regime for what it clearly is: a mafia.
Until recently, the regime wore a thin coat of democratic paint. At the start, Putin believed that this was necessary to maintain membership in [End Page 39] the G8 and other democratic clubs, and to keep his oligarchy's money safe in Western banks. But after years of cracking down on democratic institutions in Russia with little or no reaction from Western leaders, Putin realized that he could dispense with the charade. The mockery of the 2007 parliamentary and 2008 presidential "elections" amply demonstrated Putin's sense of impunity. The internal repression has only picked up speed since the international community's tepid reaction to the Russian invasion of Georgia.
The panicky nature of the Putin government's response to the economic crisis exposes how tenuous is the rulers' grip on power. Funds and arms are being routed to the internal-security forces, trial by jury is under threat, and new laws frame any dissident activity as treason.
The Putin regime is not only divorced from the Russian national interest, it is entirely in opposition to it. The good of the elite is the only greater good under consideration. Eventually there will be a tipping point. The suffering of the Russian people eventually must intersect with the realization that real democracy not only deserves a chance, but is our only hope.
Putin and his clan have delayed that tipping point thanks to windfall profits from skyrocketing energy prices and a massive propaganda campaign. The global economic crisis and the drop in oil prices presage the end of this holding action. The Putin regime in its current form will not survive for long under these conditions, and by this I mean months, not years or decades.
Putting Putin back in the presidency or otherwise shuffling the deck to distract from the dismal facts will only postpone the reckoning. The critical questions remaining are how much blood the regime is willing to send flowing into the streets of Russia in order to maintain its grip on power—and what the world's reaction will be when that blood is spilled.
Alternatively, Putin and his closest allies may decide that it is too risky for them to stay in charge as Russia falls apart. There may not be enough scapegoats to go around, and the blame may fall where it belongs—on them. This could lead to a handoff to even worse elements who promise, as Putin did to Boris Yeltsin before him, to protect...