Vladimir Putin 1952-
Vladimir Putin was a KGB Officer when Boris Yeltsin plucked him out of obscurity and gave him the reins of power. He had no government or administrative experience. Did Yeltsin realize that he had picked up a cold and coiled viper that could strike at any time? Putin believed that the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. He started his reign in the new millennium intent on restoring its past glories. High oil prices helped him by helping the economy grow.
But plain unadorned autocracy was no longer in fashion and had to be camouflaged as democracy. The State Duma became the Legislative body which Putin quickly tamed. A judiciary system entirely under his control was put in place and opposition parties were quickly declawed. A government as false as a beautiful Potemkin village was created. The trompe l’oeil was perfect.
After serving 2 terms Putin was ineligible for reelection in 2008. He then selected Dmitri Medvedev to keep his seat warm for 4 years and himself became Prime Minister. From this position, he extended the Presidential term which allowed him to magically reappear having manipulated the system until it fell in line with his ambitions.
Vladimir Putin started by dismantling the power of the new oligarchs. Any attempt at meddling in politics was nipped in the bud. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was then the richest man in Russia, head of Yukos, an oil company formed during the privatization of the 1990s. As soon as Khodorkovsky showed any interest in politics he was charged with fraud and tax evasion and promptly exiled. Viktor Gusinsky, a media tycoon was arrested for misappropriation of funds and imprisoned. Sergei Magnitsky was an auditor at a Moscow law firm and uncovered a massive fraud by tax officials and police officers. He was arrested for reporting this to the authorities and died in custody at the age of 37. These are only a few examples of the clampdown on any opposition.
Next came the press and the intelligentsia. Liberal parties like Parnas and Yabloko slowly died. Election results were manipulated so that political opponents like Alexei Navalny were prevented from winning elections because results were manipulated. Navalny himself spent five years in a corrective labor colony. Those in the press who had described Putin’s party, United Russia, as a party of thieves and crooks simply disappeared. There is now only one television channel which broadcasts the news and it is entirely controlled by the state.
Political murder is also employed with increasing frequency. Journalists have become prone to mysterious fatal accidents. Alexander Litvinenko who defected to Britain died of radiation poisoning by polonium. His slow death was shown on television for many days. Boris Nemtsov, a Putin opponent, was gunned down on the streets of Moscow. Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist from Novaya Gazeta and a human rights activist was found dead on the stairs outside her home. At least 21 other journalists have died under suspicious circumstances. Judges have been murdered for not following instructions.
Putin’s Russia is suffering from the sanctions imposed after his incursion in Ukraine and from the collapse of the ruble because of low oil prices. Corruption is rampant, everything is for sale. Putin is left in the difficult position of denying any wrongdoing such as the downing of a civilian aircraft over Ukraine’s territory and the state controlled doping of athletes. The latest blow has been the deliberate targeting of civilians during the massive bombing of Aleppo. The United Nations is now labeling this as a war crime. All this seems to have caused an increased belligerence on Putin’s part. It also seems to have had the effect of increasing his popularity at home.
It seems that many Russians don’t mind living in an autocracy.