[ Originally published July 26, 2007, this WSJ op-ed explained Vladimir Putin and the nature of his regime to anyone who wanted to listen. Unfortunately, few did. Now they are listening, but it is now far harder to stop Putin than it was eight years ago. – Garry ]
When Vladimir Putin took power in Russia in 2000, the burning question was: “Who is Putin?” It has now changed to: “What is the nature of Putin’s Russia?” This regime has been remarkably consistent in its behavior, yet foreign leaders and the Western press still act surprised at Mr. Putin’s total disregard for their opinions.
Again and again we hear cries of: “Doesn’t Putin know how bad this looks?” When another prominent Russian journalist is murdered, when a businessman not friendly to the Kremlin is jailed, when a foreign company is pushed out of its Russian investment, when pro-democracy marchers are beaten by police, when gas and oil supplies are used as weapons, or when Russian weapons and missile technology are sold to terrorist sponsor states like Iran and Syria, what needs to be asked is what sort of government would continue such behavior. This Kremlin regime operates within a value system entirely different from that of the Western nations struggling to understand what is happening behind the medieval red walls.
Mr. Putin’s government is unique in history. This Kremlin is part oligarchy, with a small, tightly connected gang of wealthy rulers. It is partly a feudal system, broken down into semi-autonomous fiefdoms in which payments are collected from the serfs, who have no rights. Over this there is a democratic coat of paint, just thick enough to gain entry into the G-8 and keep the oligarchy’s money safe in Western banks.
But if you really wish to understand the Putin regime in depth, I can recommend some reading. No Karl Marx or Adam Smith. Nothing by Montesquieu or Machiavelli, although the author you are looking for is of Italian descent. But skip Mussolini’s “The Doctrine of Fascism,” for now, and the entire political science section. Instead, go directly to the fiction department and take home everything you can find by Mario Puzo. If you are in a real hurry to become an expert on the Russian government, you may prefer the DVD section, where you can find Mr. Puzo’s works on film. “The Godfather” trilogy is a good place to start, but do not leave out “The Last Don,” “Omerta” and “The Sicilian.”
The web of betrayals, the secrecy, the blurred lines between what is business, what is government, and what is criminal — it’s all there in Mr. Puzo’s books. A historian looks at the Kremlin today and sees elements of Mussolini’s “corporate state,” Latin American juntas and Mexico’s pseudo-democratic PRI machine. A Puzo fan sees the Putin government more accurately: the strict hierarchy, the extortion, the intimidation, the code of secrecy and, above all, the mandate to keep the revenue flowing. In other words, a mafia.
If a member of the inner circle goes against the Capo, his life is forfeit. Once Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky wanted to go straight and run his Yukos oil company as a legitimate corporation and not as another cog in Mr. Putin’s KGB, Inc. He quickly found himself in a Siberian prison, his company dismantled and looted, and its pieces absorbed by the state mafia apparatus of Rosneft and Gazprom.
The Yukos case has become a model. Private companies are absorbed into the state while at the same time the assets of the state companies move into private accounts.
Alexander Litvinenko was a KGB agent who broke the loyalty code by fleeing to Britain. Worse, he violated the law of omerta; by going to the press and even publishing books about the dirty deeds of Mr. Putin and his foot soldiers. Instead of being taken fishing in the old-fashioned Godfather style, he was killed in London in the first recorded case of nuclear terrorism. Now the Kremlin is refusing to hand over the main suspect in the murder.
Mr. Putin can’t understand Britain doing potential harm to its business interests over one human life. That’s an alien concept. In his world, everything is negotiable. Morals and principles are just chips on the table in the Kremlin’s game. There is no mere misunderstanding in the Litvinenko case; there are two different languages being spoken.
In the civilized world, certain things are sacrosanct. Human life is not traded at the same table where business and diplomacy are discussed. But for Mr. Putin, it’s a true no-limits game. Kosovo, the missile shield, pipeline deals, the Iranian nuclear program and democratic rights are all just cards to be played.
After years of showing no respect for the law in Russia, with no resulting consequences from abroad, it should not come as a surprise that Mr. Putin’s attitude extends to international relations as well. The man accused of the Litvinenko murder, Andrei Lugovoi, signs autographs and enjoys the support of the Russian media, which says and does nothing without Kremlin approval. For seven years the West has tried to change the Kremlin with kind words and compliance. It apparently believed that it would be able to integrate Mr. Putin and his gang into the Western system of trade and diplomacy.
Instead, the opposite has happened — the mafia corrupts everything it touches. Bartering in human rights begins to appear acceptable. The Kremlin is not changing its standards: It is imposing them on the outside world. It receives the stamp of legitimacy from Western leaders and businesses but makes those same leaders and businesses complicit in its crimes.
With energy prices so high, the temptation to sell out to the Kremlin is an offer you almost can’t refuse. Gerhard Schroeder could not resist doing business with Mr. Putin on his terms and, after pushing through a Baltic Sea pipeline deal while in office, he had a nice Gazprom job waiting for him when he left the chancellorship. Silvio Berlusconi also became a Putin business partner. He even answered for Mr. Putin at an EU meeting, vigorously defending Russian abuses in Chechnya and the jailing of Mr. Khodorkovsky and then joking to Mr. Putin, “I should be your lawyer!” Now we see Nicolas Sarkozy boosting the interests of French energy company Total in the Shtokman gas field.
Can Mr. Sarkozy possibly speak out strongly in support of Britain after making big deals on the phone with Mr. Putin? He should know that if Gordon Brown gets Mr. Putin on the line and offers to drop the case against Mr. Lugovoi, perhaps Total will find itself pushed out to make room for BP.
We in the Russian opposition have been saying for a long time that our problem would soon be the world’s problem. The mafia knows no borders. Nuclear terror is not out of the question if it fits in with the Kremlin business agenda. Expelling diplomats and limiting official visits is not going to have an impact.
How about limiting the Russian ruling elite’s visits to their properties in the West? Ironically, they like to keep their money where they can trust in the rule of law, and so far Mr. Putin and his wealthy supporters have every reason to believe their money is safe. They’ve been spending so much on ski trips to the Alps that they recently decided to bring the skiing to Russia by snapping up the Olympic Winter Games.
There is no reason to cease doing business with Russia. The delusion is that it can ever be more than that. The mafia takes, it does not give. Mr. Putin has discovered that when dealing with Europe and America he can always exchange worthless promises of reform for cold, hard cash. Mr. Lugovoi may yet find himself up for sale.