The Liberals' Deal With Putin

Publication date
Tuesday, 01.05.2001

Jackson Diehl Yegor Gaidar

The Washington Post


Mikhail Gorbachev, the father of free speech in the former Soviet Union, says he was dismayed by the state-sponsored takeover of Russia's NTV television network. "It has split our society," he says, and will make further reform harder to achieve. But is Vladimir Putin to blame? Certainly not, Gorbachev insisted during his recent visit to Washington, where he lobbied President Bush on Putin's behalf. "It doesn't necessarily mean the president has reversed himself on a free press," he said. "Maybe his advisers pulled the wool over his eyes."

Maybe we shouldn't expect passion about democracy, or even candor, from Moscow's last Communist czar. But Mikhail Gorbachev's defense of Vladimir Putin is interesting precisely because it is so typical of the liberal political elite Gorbachev helped to create 15 years ago - - a generation of free speakers and free marketeers who once seemed totally committed to establishing capitalism and democracy in Russia. They are mostly still around, still helping to run the country. Many of them say they were disturbed by Putin's destruction of the country's independent media -- the elimination on successive days last month of the most prestigious and independent journalistic teams in television (NTV), newspapers (Sevodnya) and magazines (Itogi).

And yet, in one way or another, virtually all of them are casting their lot with Putin. There is Anatoly Chubais, the architect of the mass privatization of the Russian economy, who describes the NTV takeover as an unfortunate business dispute, and former prime minister Yegor Gaidar, who said last week he is "certain" that Putin "wants to build a democratic state." There is Boris Nemtsov, the leader of the Union of Right Forces political party; after first criticizing the crackdown, he emerged from a two-hour meeting with Putin a week ago saying he had reached agreement with the president "on nearly every issue."

And there is Boris Fedorov, a former deputy prime minister, who, like Gorbachev, recently visited Washington to make the argument that Putin's real problem is not the strong-arming of the press but his failure to strong-arm the economy. "There are several layers of truth in Russia," he argued. "Nothing is black or white, fortunately or unfortunately."

The dilemma Russia's liberal reformers face is this: The first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union saw an explosion of freedom but also a creeping chaos under president Boris Yeltsin, who governed erratically even when he was healthy and sober. The disorder fostered a wide open press but also mafias and monopolies that robbed the country's resources and made it impossible to establish a working economic system. Putin, as the liberals see it, may have autocratic tendencies -- but he also offers the prospect that the economic lawlessness that they find so frustrating can finally be reined in.

Yeltsin stood on a tank to save democracy. But Putin, says Fedorov, is "much younger and basically healthier and much better organized." Under his government, said the man once charged with collecting taxes for Yeltsin, "it became more, let's say, civilized. People started paying better taxes."

That's the bargain Russia's liberals have essentially made: NTV for better tax collection. Nemtsov all but formalized the pact in his meeting with Putin a week ago. Putin told Nemtsov's party -- which represents the most Western-oriented and liberal members of Russia's parliament -- that he "received with understanding" their pro-forma requests that he allow NTV to be taken over by new private owners and that he settle the war in Chechnya. That opened the way for agreement on what Nemtsov called "the most important issues: that taxes be reduced and the dominance of bureaucrats curtailed."

Fedorov would like to strike his own economic deal with Putin. He represents minority stockholders in the giant Russian gas company, Gazprom, who are trying to stop the systematic looting of the company's revenues and assets by its directors. The solution, he says, is for Putin to use the state's 40 percent share of the company to impose a new team of managers, who would clean up the alleged corruption.

It was Gazprom, of course, that Putin just used to take over the management of NTV -- a fact that suggests that his assertion of even tighter control over the company and its cash flow might not help the cause of democracy. But for Fedorov, NTV is an annoying distraction. "Nobody discusses stealing in Gazprom," he complained at a meeting at the Carnegie Endowment. "Nobody discusses inefficiencies in Gazprom, changes or not. Everybody discusses NTV." Putin, he insists, is the victim of bad advisers and corrupt Gazprom managers who launched the war against the media in order to avoid management reform.

The liberals' bargain on NTV may very well mark a turning point for democracy in Russia -- the moment when any chance of serious political opposition to Putin's consolidation of power disappeared. The remaining defenders of free speech are those who first appeared when Gorbachev began his policy of glasnost: writers and human rights campaigners such as Sergei Kovalyov, Sergei Grigoryants or Lev Ponomarev, or gadfly politician Grigory Yavlinsky. But they have little more power or influence than the old Soviet dissidents.

Gorbachev seems to understand the stakes, despite his diplomatic defense of Putin. "Without freedom of speech the president will not be able to implement the mandate for reform that he received in the election," he said. "Economic reform is not possible without free speech." The last Soviet leader always understood that -- but apparently Russia's liberals do not.


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