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Archive for Sunday, June 25, 2000

Putin reputation suffers setback

June 25, 2000

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— President Vladimir Putin has decided to follow the Korean model in rebuilding Russia. The problem is he can't decide which Korea.

That barbed joke was being told in Moscow even before the jailing of media owner Vladimir Gusinsky blew up into a political storm that diminished Putin's reputation. The jokers portray Putin as representing the worst of all worlds: an inept would-be autocrat uninterested in strengthening Russia's rough-hewn democracy but incapable of stifling it.

Jim Hoagland

Most striking has been Putins determined use of the Soviet-era tactic I call Implausible Deniability . . .

"He may want to be a modernizer. But he doesn't seem to know how to do it," said one Russian political analyst who, citing Putin's KGB background and KGB-style of governing, requested anonymity. "You now have to wonder not only about what agenda Putin and his team have in mind, but about their ability to implement any agenda here."

The Gusinsky affair showed Putin and his aides out of touch with the society they have ruled since Boris Yeltsin resigned on Dec. 31. Most striking has been Putin's determined use of the Soviet-era tactic I call Implausible Deniability the repetition of obvious lies the public is told to accept and pretend to believe. Public acquiescence is then cited abroad as substantiation of the original lie.

Putin successively claimed that he did not know about Gusinsky's arrest, that he could not locate the prosecuting attorney who authorized it and that he would not intervene. But then he rattled off details of the case at a press conference in an attempt to blacken the name of Gusinsky, who was charged with fraud and released.

"This is a hangover from Soviet culture," said Vyacheslav Nikonov, a political consultant and former Duma member who once worked for Yeltsin. "The Soviet Kremlin could impose a view on the media and the public through simple assertion. And the bosses also knew that if they said something stupid their media people would print or only show the right parts. Putin's team is too weak to do that."

I asked Nikonov if the arrest of Gusinsky, the owner of the only important independent television network in Russia, had chilled freedom of speech. "Far from it," he responded, gesturing toward the 12 Russian newspapers he reads each day. "Only one of these papers supports the government. The others are full of condemnation."

Nikonov, Gusinsky and others told me they believe that Putin's aim is to drive Gusinsky's empire into bankruptcy and then grab the assets for their allies. "This is a political struggle," Nikonov said. "It is also a battle of clans."

But it is a battle that has consequences for Russia's relations with the world. Gusinsky happens to be the most internationalist (and probably the least corrupt) of Russia's oligarchs. Behind Putin's staff stands Boris Berezovsky, the most protectionist and isolationist of Russia's big businessmen. Putin was on state visits to Spain and Germany when the arrest occurred last week. Gusinsky's aides believe the former KGB colonel counted on media coverage of friendly receptions abroad to muffle any protests of the arrest at home. Exactly the opposite occurred: Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's fawning over Putin in Berlin was eclipsed here and abroad, by the Gusinsky uproar.

On returning to Moscow, Putin canceled a scheduled appearance Tuesday at a major business conference that brought heavyweight foreign investors to Moscow. "His words about Russia wanting foreign investment will ring hollow in some ears for some time to come," said one conference-goer. "The gap between what he says and what he does grows all the time."

That is the sound of a jury coming in wearing frowns. The Clinton administration's protestations that the jury is still out on Putin that he needs time to show that his promises to establish a stronger Russian state based on "a dictatorship of laws" do not mean a turning back of the clock here wear thin in light of the Gusinsky affair.

Clinton and the other leaders in the Group of Seven industrial democracies need to focus on Putin's attempt last week to use the prestige they lend him to reinforce abusive power at home. Criticism of Gusinsky's arrest or of Russia's war on Chechnya did not rank on Schroeder's agenda during the Berlin visit, which was a free ride for Putin.

The word in Moscow is that Putin has instructed his envoys to demand full Russian participation in all phases of the Okinawa G-8 summit in July although Russia's economy does not qualify it for such treatment. The trends here in Moscow strongly argue for a joint nyet to Putin's proposal.

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