MOSCOW — The year 2004 has had mixed blessings for Russian President Vladimir Putin. He won re-election in a landslide, and though the results were probably rigged, by and large they still reflected voters’ sympathies well enough: Russia likes its president.
He silenced his most vocal opponents in the mass media. Oppositional political parties have been reduced to the role of court jesters, lending legitimacy to a progressively authoritarian regime.
So far so good, one is tempted to say, while marveling at the dazzling success of a man who was practically unknown to Russians only six years ago. Yet, in the last months of 2004, banana peels lay in wait for him like determined jihad fighters. Spoiled by previous successes, Putin slipped on every one of them.
In August and September, Chechen terrorists struck several targets — two passenger jets, a Moscow subway station and a school in the town of Beslan. As the latter involved the taking of hundreds of hostages, mostly children, the drama was closely watched by the rest of the world. Putin’s proteges, Russian special forces, performed ineptly during the crisis. Their storming of a building resulted in a gross number of hostage casualties — just as it did a few years earlier when Chechens held a Moscow theater.
The Beslan tragedy showed that Putin and his security experts had learned nothing from the past fiasco. Putin’s reaction to the mishandled crisis was outrageous: He canceled elections of regional governors nationwide. To use a hostage tragedy to curb regional autonomy is not the best way to endear oneself to the people. That was the first banana peel for the Russian leader.
The second one was the disputed presidential elections in Ukraine. After the opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, the official loser of the race, called the election fraudulent and the West agreed, Putin went ballistic. He threw his support behind the official winner, pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych, and launched a vigorous anti-Western propaganda campaign in the worst traditions of the Cold War.
In yet another round of Ukraine elections (Dec. 26), monitored by Western observers, Yushchenko won, having garnered the applause of the majority of Ukrainians, European leaders and the United States.
It turns out that Putin’s wrath was in vain and, worse, totally unnecessary. For Yushchenko, who is so hateful to the Russian president, is not an idealistic liberal pro-Western reformer, but rather a cynical go-getter, cleverly exploiting the Ukrainian people’s national feelings and social anxieties.
Yushchenko was never a dissident persecuted by the government. On the contrary, he used to be a Ukrainian prime minister (one of his predecessors in the job, accused of gargantuan corruption in his homeland, fled to the U.S., where he was promptly jailed).
Careerwise, Yushchenko is not that different from his unlucky opponent, Yanukovych — another Ukrainian prime minister. Putin’s overreaction to Yushchenko’s populist, mildly anti-Russian statements bordered on paranoia.
Now Putin must face the music, and he will hardly like the score. Domestically, Russian hawks are now saying he “lost” Ukraine notwithstanding his determined facial expressions and blatant Cold War vocabulary. Internationally, Putin now looks like a bully (which he is), willing to meddle into the internal affairs of a neighboring country to keep it in the Russian sphere of influence.
After the crisis in Russo-Ukrainian relations, which was single-handedly initiated and then blown out of proportion by Putin, many people worldwide, particularly in Europe, take the danger of the new Russian imperialism more seriously.
The third banana peel was shaped like a dollar bill and represented the Russian oil industry. Having jailed a number of oil executives and forced others to flee abroad, Putin started putting their companies under state control — over the loud and angry protests of foreign investors and shareholders. This, perhaps, was his greatest folly of 2004.
The Russian economy does enjoy a degree of autonomy thanks to rich oil and gas resources. But without the good will of the international business community, further development will slow down or stop altogether. Oil no doubt is a powerful instrument of political blackmail; fortunately Russia doesn’t have a monopoly on it. Now its exports may suffer.
Who is going to invest in Russian oil after the Russian government has demonstrated that it can appropriate any company’s assets practically overnight? The stupid decision to strip a private company of its property sets a terrible precedent. From now on, any foreign investor, whether in the oil sector, forestry or fast food, will think twice before signing a contract with Putin’s Russia. Neither Putin nor Russia will benefit from this.
Until the fall of 2004, Putin had been rather clever in handling the political deck. While reducing human rights inside the country, he had maintained good relations with the West and indicated that the authoritarian trend in politics would not expand to the economic sphere. His newly acquired arrogance may cost him dearly.
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