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The Moscow Times, November 10, 2003

Putin's Reign of Fear

By Vladimir Gusinsky

Russia is full of fear. Businessmen, politicians -- all those who stick their heads above the parapet -- are afraid of President Vladimir Putin. Everybody understands that after a show trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, heads will roll. Confiscation of property in favor of the state and Putin's entourage will follow. The president clearly relishes the fear that he inspires. The greater the fear, the stronger his power.

But Putin is also afraid. He is afraid that people will remember him for the bloodbath in Chechnya, the elimination of the free media, the Inquisition-like use of the FSB and the prosecutors, and for trampling on the Constitution. The stronger his fear, the greater the temptation to become a lifelong dictator or to cultivate a successor who will continue to rule with an iron hand.

I was born and grew up in the Soviet Union and I know fear well. My grandfather was executed by Stalin. My grandmother spent long years in the Gulag. Like everyone else I was scared to speak about certain issues out loud. I did not dare to think of challenging the power of the state. Some 15 years ago, I started to lose that fear, as the state we were so afraid of collapsed.

I was certain that fear would not return. Freedom of speech and elections came to Russia. Political parties and politicians emerged who, it seemed, were not afraid of anyone. I and others created NTV, the best television channel in Russia, and then Media-MOST, the largest media company. We built it ourselves, from scratch, without having to purchase privatized state property, and the journalists who worked for us were not scared of telling the truth. I thought this would last for ever.

I was wrong. Having come to power, Putin destroyed our company, shamelessly using the FSB, general prosecutor and obedient courts, and brought the remaining free media under state control. Today all the main TV channels are controlled by the state and the journalists who work there are once again engaged in propaganda.

Some people would argue that, even today, NTV stands out from the rest. This is true. But even the Soviet regime tolerated the "liberal" publication Literaturnaya Gazeta. This was just a smokescreen for a regime that did not tolerate real freedom of speech.

Liberal parties in today's Russia provide a similar smokescreen. When the Communist Party's monopoly started to crumble, Vladimir Zhirinovsky's party emerged from the depths of the KGB, creating the illusion of a multi-party system. Grigory Yavlinsky's Yabloko and Anatoly Chubais' Union of Right Forces are part of the same illusion.

The reality is that Putin's Kremlin today has a political monopoly. It controls parliament and the courts. Chubais and other leaders on the right bear direct responsibility for the emergence of Putin's authoritarian regime. In helping to realize their dream of a Russian version of Chile's Augusto Pinochet, they neglected the destruction of the free media and did not resist Putin's attack on the Constitution. Now that Khodorkovsky has been arrested and his property is being confiscated, they would like to rewind history, but they are afraid to do anything. The best one can say of their meek criticism of Putin is that it is too little, too late.

If the Russian elite does not overcome its fear, Putin will tighten the screws. The regime will be entrenched for years, even if someone else is in charge. The sooner someone challenges Putin, the less likely it is that Russia will slide back toward its past. The leaders of the parties of the right should overcome their fears and, during the parliamentary elections, give people the facts about Putin and where he is taking Russia.

It is their duty to take part in next year's presidential elections -- and not like Yavlinsky, who runs just to remind people he exists. No, they must propose a fearless candidate who will tell Putin and his supporters the truth. Even if they do not succeed, they will have acquired real -- rather than decorative -- political power, and put an obstacle in the way of dictatorship.

If they do not find someone with enough courage in their own ranks, they should propose Khodorkovsky. He has already shown he is not afraid of Putin and has challenged him directly. This is why he poses such a danger to the president. This is precisely why he is in jail today. Yet, in truth, he is a freer man than most of those who are still at liberty.

Vladimir Gusinsky is a founder of NTV and Media-MOST. This comment first appeared in the Financial Times.


See also:

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Presidential Elections 2004


The Moscow Times, November 10, 2003

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