Putin's Russia fails its own test
For entirely understandable reasons, recent events in Russia have prompted a tidal wave of criticism against President Vladimir Putin's style of government.
The horrific murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and three other high-profile contract killings in the last few weeks alone; the Kremlin-inspired chauvinism against Georgians in Russia after a spying row between Tbilisi and Moscow; and growing concerns about the way energy policy is being used to promote a form of neoimperial aggrandizement - all these have combined to produce some startlingly blunt descriptions.
The former world chess champion and possible presidential contender Gary Kasparov now speaks openly about a police state in Russia, a phrase also used by the seasoned Russia analyst Anders Aslund in the current edition of The Weekly Standard.
A former Putin adviser, Andrei Illarionov, talked on Echo Moskvy radio last week of an "atmosphere of terror" and of a move toward a medieval form of government that is "the property of a narrow group of people who use the instruments of state against the rest of society."
The Economist referred to former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar's comparisons between contemporary Russia and interwar Germany, concluding its analysis with the dire warning that: "It's not there yet, but Russia sometimes seems to be heading toward fascism."
It is a measure of how far Russia has sunk that such appraisals can no longer be dismissed as hysterical. Perhaps even more interesting, however, is that Russia is not merely failing to live up to standards set by the West or by its own Western-oriented intelligentsia, it is failing in crucial respects to live up to Putin's primary aim of modernization.
Consider Putin's record on his core pledge to put Russia under a "dictatorship of law" and move away from the corrupt free-for-all of the 1990s. With a score of 2.4 on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index (in which 10 is the best score and 0 the lowest), Russia tied with Albania in 2005 as the most corrupt country in Europe. Russia now ranks lower than Ukraine and Belarus.
Russia's ranking in 1999, the last year of Boris Yeltsin's rule, was also 2.4. In other words, despite all the rhetoric from Putin supporters about the need to give up a few freedoms in order to break with the "wild east" practices of the Yeltsin years, Putin has failed to make any progress whatsoever in entrenching the rule of law in Russian society.
This should not surprise us. The supposed trade- off between personal freedoms and enhanced legality was always deeply flawed. Law can only function as the guiding principle of society when there is sufficient transparency to hold government and business accountable for their actions. That transparency disappears when, as in Putin's Russia, the news media cease to be able to carry out their most important functions.
Admittedly, there is no single blueprint for modernization. It all depends on where you started from and where you can realistically expect to get to in a particular time frame. When North Korea finally frees itself from the awfulness of Stalinism, for example, it will need a different blueprint for progress from Saudi Arabia when the time comes, as it one day will, to ditch the House of Saud.
Russia will never become a Eurasian version of the United States and to try to make it so would be both futile and dangerous. But it is a grave mistake to believe that Russia, with its historical baggage, can accomplish the task of modernization without adopting certain basic norms of democracy, accountability, law and free political discourse.
It is precisely the absence of such qualities, after all, that has always held Russia back and made its society vulnerable to the excesses of arbitrary rule, whether by Czarist autocrats, Communist totalitarians or today's cocktail of Kremlin demagoguery, business oligarchs and organized-crime syndicates.
Commentators have long recognized that Putin's so-called managed democracy was a contradiction in terms. The bigger picture, however, is that the entire Putin project offers up a classic example of an irreconcilable contradiction between ends and means. Putin seeks the goal of a modern, dynamic Russia while simultaneously employing the kind of strategy that leads to political and societal stagnation reminiscent of Russia's past.
It is from within that contradiction that the pain- filled drama of contemporary Russia is now being played out before our eyes.
Robin Shepherd is a senior trans-Atlantic fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, based in Bratislava, Slovakia.