Vladimir Putin is beginning to mould the new Russia in his own image. Just as Mikhail Gorbachev sought to reform a communist system that was beyond reform, and Boris Yeltsin began the mad rush to oligarchic capitalism, he has reimposed state control on all aspects of political and economic life. As Russia prepares for parliamentary elections on 7 December, his governing principle seems to be a selective application of international norms: freedom of speech, property rights, parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.
His gradual rolling back of the freedoms won in the 1990s, appreciated by few, does not herald the return to Soviet-era dictatorship. Russia is too firmly integrated in global institutions for that. But the arrest a month ago of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the all-powerful head of the oil conglomerate Yukos, has shaken international confidence. His lawyers concede that, given the lack of independence of the courts, he is almost certain to be jailed on corruption and tax evasion charges, which could be levelled against any business leader or state official. In Moscow, there are three explanations. Putin wants to stop Khodorkovsky’s political ambitions in their tracks and serve notice to others that they will suffer the same fate. Or he wants to get his hands on Yukos’s assets. Or, less probably, he wants to deter sell-offs to foreign firms.
The siloviki, the KGB men who surround Putin, are urging him to go further. He will use the “velvet revolution” in Georgia to restore Russian influence in the Caucasus. For all the protests in the western media, Putin knows that his crackdown has played to many of the deep-seated resentments of Russian voters, who associate the super-wealth of the oligarchs with the excesses of the Yeltsin era. The privatisations of the 1990s were little more than a bargain-basement sale of Russia’s natural resources.
For those people I knew when living in Moscow during the heady years of the 1990s, the “barricades” mentality has long gone. Alarm has been superseded by disengagement. The veneer of a more international, westernised and consumerist society has not been dented. The new middle class is keen on travel and making money, and will keep its head down to do so. The problem for the international community, which until now has trodden softly, is how to coax Putin back towards a path to democracy. In Soviet times, Russians had an expression – we pretend to work; they pretend to pay us. Now there is a new mantra – we pretend to vote; they pretend to notice.