A funny sort of democracy

Around the world, Washington endorses then deposes rulers. Reporting on Russia, Neil Clark spells ou

It is well documented that a cabal of Likud-supporting American neoconservatives played an important role in bringing about this year's illegal war against Iraq. What is less well known is the link the group has with the billionaire oligarchs in Russia and how they are trying to use the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky to harden US policy towards Moscow. Richard Perle's gang of regime-changers and advocates of total war are taking advantage of their disproportionate influence in the western media to portray the arrest of the billionaire businessman as a major international scandal and evidence that Vladimir Putin, a man whose elevation to power they largely welcomed three years ago, is now the new Stalin.

Perle's interest in Russia goes back a long way. As for most Likudniks of his generation, the Soviet Union was the "evil empire" - not so much for its clampdowns on western-style freedoms, but for the support it gave to secular Arab regimes and its sponsorship of Palestinian liberation movements. Perle helped draft the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment which, to the chagrin of supporters of detente, made US-Soviet trade deals dependent on the Soviets facilitating Jewish emigration.

In the 20 years that followed, more than a million Russian Jews left for Israel, boosting the electoral prospects of Likud and the far right. This also produced new settlements in the occupied territories, which did much to provoke today's troubles.

The eventual disintegration of the Soviet Union and the shock therapy of Russia's road to a "market" economy were widely welcomed by Perle and his supporters, even though this led to the impoverishment of swathes of the population. With the rapid transition to capitalism came the emergence of the oligarchs - seven businessmen who used their connections with the corrupt Yeltsin administration to seize valuable state assets at knockdown prices.

In the oligarchs, Perle and his fellow hawks saw a way in which the US and Israel could, by proxy, gain political and economic power in Russia and, by doing so, eventually gain control of enormous energy resources.

But seven years on from the heady days of 1996, when the intervention of the oligarchs and their backers in the west guaranteed re-election for the "reformer" Boris Yeltsin, things have gone very wrong. Boris Berezovsky, the "God-father of the Kremlin", and his fellow oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky are both in exile. Earlier this year, Russia's stubborn holding of its line on Iraq infuriated the neoconservatives and increased their determination to work towards regime change at the next presidential elections in 2004 - and to accelerate their plans to secure Russia's energy resources.

Before his arrest, Khodorkovsky had been in talks with US oil companies over a merger with Yukos. Now, with their man in Moscow behind bars, it is time for the neoconservative propaganda war against Putin to go into overdrive. Perle was first out of the blocks, calling for Russia's expulsion from the G8 and its exclusion from any postwar Iraq oil contracts, and accusing it of collusion with Iran's nuclear power programme.

Bruce P Jackson - like Perle a member of the Project for the New American Century and president of the hawkish Project on Transitional Democracies - used his column in the Washington Post to argue that Putin had established a "de facto cold war administration in Moscow" and that the Russian president's actions were motivated by anti-Semitism (a claim echoed by Ariel Sharon). "In dollar terms we are witnessing the largest illegal appropriation of Jewish property since the Nazi seizures during the 1930s."

For Jackson, Putin is not just a new tsar and a new Stalin, but a new Hitler, too. In Britain, the Daily Telegraph, a paper not known for handing its comment pages to refugees wanted for criminal activities in their own country, did just that. Boris Berezovsky condemned the "increasing totalitarianism" of the Putin regime.

In the unrelenting pro-Khodorkovsky, anti-Putin propaganda we have been subjected to, much has been made of the oligarchs' role in building Russian "democracy" - as opposed to the crude attempts of the Russian president to shunt his country back to the days of Peter the Great. But the "democracy" that Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky stand for is the "democracy" of an elite of billionaire businessmen to buy themselves not just political power, but immunity from the laws of the land.

"We hired First Deputy Chubais," Berezovsky boasted in 1997. "We invested huge sums of money. We guaranteed Yeltsin's re-election. Now we have the right to occupy government posts and use the fruits of our victory."

True democracy in Russia would mean not only the return of property held by the oligarchs to their rightful owners - the Russian people - but the formation of a government that puts the needs and interests of Russia first, rather than those of the US or Israel.

For all their lip-service to the democratic ideal, that is the last thing Richard Perle, the oligarchs and their supporters in the west really want.