Putin Foes See Erosion Of Liberties
MOSCOW, Sept. 25 -- After Russia's most reputable polling agency reported last month that support for President Vladimir Putin's war in Chechnya had fallen to 28 percent, the messengers were targeted by a state-ordered purge. Soon the center's founder and research team were out, replaced by a 29-year-old who once campaigned for Putin's political party.
"I've heard that we provide data they might dislike, that public opinion has to look better for the government than the way we represent it," lamented Yuri Levada, who created the government-owned All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion, which for 15 years until last month enjoyed unusual autonomy to put out numbers that often irritated the Kremlin.
Putin called it a simple financial dispute, but many reformers and political analysts saw it as emblematic of a broader rollback of democratic gains of the post-Soviet period. In the past few months alone, the last independent national television network was shut down, new rules drastically restricting political coverage were imposed on surviving news organizations, challengers to the Kremlin favorite in next month's election in Chechnya were driven out of the race and a spate of investigations were launched against an oil tycoon who funded rival political parties.
Few if any of these issues will take a prominent place on the agenda when Putin meets President Bush at Camp David for a summit Friday and Saturday, according to officials from both governments. In the two years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Putin has positioned himself as a chief ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism and, while he disagreed with Bush on the invasion of Iraq, the Russian president still occupies a special place in the White House's hierarchy of foreign friends.
Yet critics at home say that Putin's proclivity for authoritarian rule has largely been overlooked by the United States and will undermine the legitimacy of parliamentary election campaigns now underway.
"I'm very worried about the destiny of democracy in Russia," said Vladimir Lysenko, a member of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, and founder of one of the first political parties to challenge the Communists in the dying days of the Soviet Union.
Lysenko fears that a powerful Kremlin faction wants to follow China's model, economic reform without political freedom. "Russia is now at a crossroads," he said, "whether to take the European way of development, the democratic way of development, or the Asian way, a partial authoritarian regime."
Putin's vision of democracy has provoked debate since he took office on New Year's Day 2000. A former KGB colonel picked by Boris Yeltsin to succeed him as president, Putin made restoring stability his top priority after a decade of chaos, saying that he preferred a "dictatorship of law" and "managed democracy" to the more rollicking variety of his predecessor's term.
Early in his term, Putin reorganized the rules of the legislature's upper house so that regional governors, often defiant of his authority, did not automatically get seats. He also installed new officials known as super governors to rein in the regional governors.
While Russia retains many surface attributes of democracy, an evening spent watching television news suggests the limits of public discourse. Putin invariably is shown on every channel meeting with top officials, visiting other countries or speaking on the topic of the day. Other political leaders find it hard to get airtime if they are criticizing Putin or his priorities.
Russian reporters are given little chance to question Putin. Even during the one open news conference he generally gives each year, the room is stacked with friendly reporters from small towns who ask questions vetted beforehand by the Kremlin.
When American reporters interviewed Putin last weekend in advance of his U.S. trip, a top Kremlin official twice asked television journalists not to bring up Chechnya when cameras were recording the give-and-take. When one reporter did anyway, the Russian media largely ignored that part of the discussion in its reports. The Kremlin Web site posted a transcript of only the first part of the four-hour session, leaving out many pointed questions.
One question not found on the Kremlin site concerned the status of democracy in Russia. Putin dismissed suggestions that democracy was being pushed back. "If by democracy one means the dissolution of the state, then we do not need such democracy," he said. "Why is democracy needed? To make people's lives better, to make them free. I don't think that there are people in the world who want democracy that would lead to chaos."
The system that Putin has built has rewarded him with sustained popularity -- even according to the pollsters from the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion, known by its Russian initials VTsIOM, who were forced out. In a survey issued this week as the inaugural report of a new private firm they formed, VTsIOM-A, Putin's approval rating stood at 75 percent.
Yet that poll also exposed the weaknesses in Putin's rule. Even though Russians like Putin, many are skeptical about his government. The survey found that 59 percent surveyed disapproved of "the government of Russia as a whole" and 50 percent disapprove of Putin's prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov.
Gubernatorial elections last weekend in St. Petersburg, Putin's home town, likewise suggested that elections can be managed but not always won. Putin endorsed a top lieutenant, Valentina Matviyenko, on television in seeming violation of the new media law against partisan advocacy. All around town, billboards showed Matviyenko with Putin and the slogan, "Together we can do everything."
Yet in voting Sunday, turnout was so low it barely cleared the legally required minimum threshold of 20 percent, and Matviyenko failed to secure the majority needed to avoid a runoff.
"Slogans don't work here anymore," said Alexander Yuriev, head of the political science department at St. Petersburg State University. He called the elections "a rehearsal" for Duma campaigns and said the Kremlin would have to come up with less heavy-handed ways of forcing through its candidates. "Voters are different now, and they do not want to buy what they are offered. In that sense, it's a sign of a developing democracy and a step forward."
So far, though, the Kremlin has largely been able to steer the upcoming campaigns. In Chechnya, the three strongest challengers to the Kremlin-appointed administrator, Akhmad Kadyrov, disappeared from the Oct. 5 contest in quick succession -- one abruptly dropped out without explanation, the second was disqualified from the ballot and the third quit to take a job offer from Putin.
In the lead-up to the Dec. 7 Duma elections, the government has opened investigations into Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Yukos oil company, which had directed millions of dollars to the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko parties, the strongest advocates of democratic and market reforms. Putin's critics see the probes as an effort to choke off the flow of money to those parties.
During the summer the Russian Press Ministry silenced another unfriendly voice, shutting down TVS, a struggling television channel that had become the home for independent journalists forced out of NTV when a state-controlled company took it over in 2001. And a new law signed by Putin barred the media from providing information deemed to be election advocacy, including political analysis, results forecasting or even mentioning whether a candidate failed to fulfill a campaign promise.
Asked last weekend about these developments, Putin conceded that the media law may go too far in suppressing journalists. "There are grounds to their concerns," he said. "And we will do our best to settle the matter. This is not an attempt to stifle democracy. If there are legal problems, we will look for a way to solve this."
But he insisted that the VTsIOM purge and the shuttering of TVS were financial matters. He said he did not instigate the Yukos investigations and denied that they were intended to block funding to the opposition. "Very often I don't agree with what they say or do, but I am convinced that these forces should be represented on the political stage," he said. "And if Yukos finances them -- I hope in the framework of the law -- fine, go ahead."
U.S. officials acknowledge that their attention to Russia's internal policies has taken a back seat to the war on terrorism. "I don't think this means these are unimportant issues," Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said in an interview last week while visiting Russia to discuss energy cooperation and nuclear non-proliferation and to confer with Putin. "But there's no doubt that since 9/11 . . . the focus has been on what we can do about international terrorism and homeland security."
Putin understands that and has used the distraction to reshape Russia's domestic political landscape without much fear of external criticism, according to analysts and political leaders. For instance, in a meeting with Russian human rights activists, U.S. officials turned down their requests for help monitoring the Chechen election, according to Sarah Mendelson, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who attended the meetings.
"They said, 'No, we can't be there for you,' which is a message that is very disheartening about the U.S.'s support of democracy and human rights," she said. "There's this weird Alice in Wonderland thing where they say everything is okay with Chechnya. Officially, at the highest levels, they've adopted what the Putin administration is saying."
When U.S. officials criticize, Putin or his aides make clear they consider such comments out of bounds, citing their cooperation in the war on terrorism. "We have to get rid of . . . the habit of lecturing each other," Putin said in response to State Department criticism of Russia's human rights record in Chechnya. "We have to become partners. We have to support each other."