Power: The Vladimir Story

by C.J. Chivers

Esquire Magazine
October 1, 2008

VLADIMIR V. PUTIN stood on the landing of a staircase outside the
Grand Kremlin Palace. Ceremonial troops paraded before him. Behind
him was the presidency, which he had left a few minutes before.

It was May 7, 2008, a milestone in a season of ceremony inside
the Kremlin’s red walls. Beside Putin stood his protege, Dmitry
A. Medvedev, who had just become the third president of post-Soviet

Officially, Medvedev was the Kremlin’s leader, successor to Yeltsin,
Gorbachev, and all of the others, back to Stalin, Lenin, and the
czars. Medvedev was minutes into his term. After the troops filed
past, he remained in place, waiting. And then, in the full public view
that live television allows, Vladimir Putin, who at the moment held
no elected office, shifted his head and said something not audible
to the rest of us.

Taking a cue from Russia’s boss, Medvedev left the stage.

It was Medvedev’s day. It remained Putin’s time.


Vladimir Putin is a national savior and hero, a man, sober and
exceptionally smart, who stepped from shadows to resuscitate a proud
country that others had run aground, looted, and left for dead. After
eight years as president, a period marked by a surging economy
and an unexpectedly victorious war in Chechnya, he surrendered one
of the most seductively powerful offices on earth voluntarily and
according to Russia’s constitution, with Moscow’s influence in the
world restored and with a large fraction of Russia’s citizens better
off than they ever had been. He has been a bridge from postcommunist
chaos and hardship to national stability, freer markets, individual
economic choice, and the possibility of democracy.

Or, he is a cunning, even diabolical strongman atop a scrum of
bandit cliques. As a career officer in the KGB, an organization
its members never leave, he is fundamentally anti-Western and
undemocratic, and comfortable with conflict, crime, and the company of
beasts. Moreover, he is nostalgic for empire and covetous of power, and
he has surrendered only a title. Instead, he has manipulated Russia’s
loose political rules and obedient political class to install a puppet
successor and transfer the levers to his new post as Russia’s premier,
where he continues to abuse office and direct the spoils of oil-state
excess to his coterie. His talk of public stewardship and personal
liberties is farce. The Kremlin has rejected democracy while pretending
to embrace it, hardening into a kleptocracy with nuclear weapons and
state-controlled television stations purring that all is well.

Depending on the point of view of the commentator (and sometimes the
source of the commentator’s paycheck), the standard assessments of
Putin’s nine years in public office reach these rival extremes. What
makes them interesting, and makes full and accurate descriptions of
Putin elusive, is that both are largely true.

Vladimir Putin is one of the central figures of our times, the man
who presided at the Kremlin as the broken remains of a sprawling
nation were restored to life, and who used his stature to reorder
the Russian-speaking world’s relations with the West and become the
de facto spokesman of strongmen everywhere. No recent Western leader
can claim to have changed a nation and its place in the world so fully.

During his second term, from 2004 to 2008, as Putin reanimated
the Kremlin, I lived and roamed in the world where he is supreme,
working as a newspaper correspondent throughout the former Soviet
republics. Putin’s influence is outsized and everywhere. But fresh
insights into him are rare. This is because analysis of Putin and his
Kremlin relies more on deduction than firsthand observation. Access
to him and the top levels of his government is exceptionally
limited. The common perceptions of Putin are created indirectly,
by reflecting on the Kremlin’s manufactured images on state-run news,
by interviewing people in proximity to power or who have suffered from
it, and by reading cues. Sleuthing informs the picture but is small
in scale. Russia lacks freedom-of-information laws and practices,
many interesting archives are closed, and fundamental documents of
civil affairs-court records and transcripts, for example-are difficult
to obtain. Requests for meetings with officials or questions about
government decisions can go unanswered for months. Russian authorities
also run the equivalent of a counterintelligence operation against
independent journalists: The entrances to the apartments and offices
of much of the Moscow press corps are under video surveillance and
have uniformed guards who check visitors’ passports. Phone lines
are bugged. Almost every journalist who wanders Russia has tales
of being denied access to regions, of having sources reinterviewed
by local authorities, or of being stopped for questioning by police
or intelligence officials. (A Russian colleague and I were detained
twice while working on a story on the terrorist siege at the public
school in Beslan.) Putin’s Russia is far less restrictive than Soviet
times, but is a stifling environment in which to trace the motions
of a nation, and a leader, moving at such speed.

In grappling with Putin and his meanings, I often turned my back on
him for weeks at a time to survey the Kremlin’s old and distant domain,
trying to understand Putin from vantage points away from the center-in
the Caucasus and Central Asia, at revolutions, crackdowns, elections,
and in the Chechen and Georgian wars. Throughout a continent where
the rule of cliques is secured by manipulated politics and fraudulent
elections, there was no limit to the seams where Putin’s hand-and
his extraordinary luck-revealed itself. Putin ultimately succeeded
in running against the 1990s, against separatism, penury, weakness,
and the crisis of self-confidence that made Russia a laugh line, even
as official cruelty and crime checkered his political climb. And yet
when measured off the bottom-against the domestic behavior of other
leaders who imposed themselves on the union’s wreckage-he could often
seem the softest of the autocrats.

That unlikely status presents one way of blending the rival arguments:
Is Putin’s Russia a retreat to Soviet practices or a capitalist
democracy sputtering through early stages of evolution? Putin’s
signature legacy is not Russia’s new wealth and confidence, nor the
subjugation of Chechnya, nor the return of an assertive foreign
policy, capped by the invasion of Georgia. It is the refinement,
if that word could ever be used with this phenomenon, of a more
sophisticated and rational police state than the failed USSR. This
is no celebration of imaginary virtues; the world of his politics
remains ugly and unrepaired. It is meant to pose a question. Putin
has reshaped Russian autocracy under another name. To what end?


>From the beginning, the experts’ forecasts were wrong. When an
exhausted President Boris Yeltsin introduced Putin to the world in
the summer of 1999, announcing that Putin was his choice as prime
minister (Yeltsin’s sixth in less than eighteen months), few expected
him to last. It was not just that Putin, then forty-six, was charged
with managing a pauper state, a government adrift in disorder,
and a population soured by the unmet promises of free markets and
democracy. The brewing unrest in Chechnya had drifted beyond separatism
and nationalism and become an international Islamic cause. Crime
and corruption were pandemic, and a circle of billionaire oligarchs
controlled large fractions of the nation’s resources and capital,
as well as voting blocs in parliament, which was a legislature for
sale. There was also Yeltsin’s lurching style to consider, which
lent Putin’s new job the air of a free-swinging trap-door. Nothing
that summer suggested that Putin’s tenure would end differently from
those of his predecessors, who were sacked. Vladimir Putin was an
untested unknown, a stand-in destined to be fired. It hardly helped
that Yeltsin said he would support him in the presidential election
in 2000. An endorsement from a man who gave Russia a losing war and
economic shock therapy at once? Leonid Dobrokhotov, an advisor to
the Communist party, called it a "kiss of death."

In retrospect, of course, the early assessments were wrong, albeit for
understandable reasons. Russia’s problems were monumental. Events in
the recent past predicted little relief. And the available information
on Putin, a career spy, was beyond scarce. This was a public figure
schooled in anonymity and deception; so complete was his obscurity that
one prominent Western newspaper described him as "tall." Putin is a
martial-arts expert. Light-footed and thick-shouldered, he can emanate
the self-assuredness of a stocky, muscular cat. But he is not tall. He
stands, by generous estimate, perhaps five feet six inches high.

Putin swiftly displayed his confrontational self. He directed a
renewed military campaign in Chechnya, which was foundering under
the self-rule separatists had gained after fighting the Russian army
to a standstill a few years before. The war had undermined Russia’s
standing and self-esteem, psychological injuries that Putin seemed to
understand viscerally. Vladimir Putin did not just promise to restore
Russian rule. He went beyond the typical language of settling unsettled
scores. He vowed blood. "We will pursue the terrorists everywhere,"
he said. "You will forgive me, but if we catch them in the toilet, we
will wet them even in the outhouse." Earlier Russian premiers had been
rendered inert by the tenacity of the Chechen fighters and the reliable
incompetence of Russia’s army. (In 1995 Viktor Chernomyrdin had pleaded
for the release of hostages with Shamil Basayev, the terrorist,
on live television. "I beg you," he had said.) Putin signaled that
Russia would not beg. He came from an organization that had used fear
to bring a vast nation to heel. Violence for him was a governing tool.

Putin also showed skills as a performer, peppering an understated
demeanor with prison-slang coarseness. Hunting terrorists to their
toilets? The Russian idiom "to wet" is inmate jargon for soaking a
victim in blood. It is a knowing way of saying "to kill" and suggests
killing at very close range, as with a knife. Underneath his Italian
suits and aura of sobriety, Putin revealed an icy Eastwood deadpan. An
ease with crudity simmered beneath what passed for Putin’s style. Asked
if he worried about Russia’s columns inflicting civilian casualties,
Putin made clear that he did not, and would not keep company with
people who did. "We do not need generals who chew snot," he said.

Such was the mind behind Russia’s new war. Russian troops soon
leveled much of Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, and launched often
indiscriminate sweeps through the Chechen countryside. Victims and
human-rights organizations assigned much of the blame for the troops’
conduct to Putin, whose language seemed to encourage it. Putin was
undeterred. He had found a persona. He was not just a stern nationalist
who would restore Russian sovereignty. He was the unblinking fighter,
untroubled by rules, conscience, or second thought in the pursuit of
national order. Russia’s losing streak had been long. Putin would be
its fist. RUDEST EVER P.M. WINS OVER RUSSIA, another Western newspaper
declared. His popularity climbed.

Late in 1999, Yeltsin resigned, making Putin the front-runner in the
presidential race. In the spring of 2000, he was elected. His time
had begun.


Eight years on, Russia looks not much like it did then. The value of
the Russian stock market has soared. Personal incomes have grown. A
society that suffered the forced austerity of communism and economic
collapse has entered a carnival of personal spending. Gone are empty
shelves, replaced by a rollicking consumer culture that buys what it
wants. French perfumes, Austrian chocolates, Japanese electronics,
Scandinavian cell phones, Italian handbags, Cuban cigars, Australian
wines, and single-malt Scotches-malls have opened offering all of
these. Rates of car ownership have multiplied with access to personal
credit, and Moscow’s roads, cluttered during Yeltsin’s time with
Zhigulis, are jammed with BMWs and Benzes. Extravagant restaurants
cater to the wealthy. Sushi, in the inland reaches of a northern
forest, is a minor Russian craze. For people of even modest means,
stores stock fresh fruits and vegetables year-round. Yes, babushkas
still sell onions on the streets. And yes, rural areas are deeply
depressed. But the expanding Russian wealth has grown beyond the
horizon. Visit tourist destinations in Thailand, the Mediterranean,
Europe, or the Red Sea and you will hear Russian. Visit a real
estate office in any Western capital and you will hear tales of
Russian buyers.

Such are the signs of the most tangible freedom associated with
Putin’s Russia-the freedom to buy whatever you can afford, except,
in most cases, power.

No small part of this turnaround resulted from conditions outside
Putin’s control. Russia’s combined oil and natural-gas reserves
are the world’s largest, and with timber and coal and mineral
deposits, these resources positioned Russia to be a global gas pump,
lumberyard, and mine long before any of us knew Putin’s name. The
price explosion of oil enriched Russia with head-spinning speed,
creating a huge transfer of global wealth to Slavic hands. Along the
way, it transformed parts of dreary Moscow into a northern Vegas and
allowed the Kremlin-which not long ago could not afford the fuel in its
fighter jets-to pay down foreign debts ahead of schedule. And yet the
results cannot be ascribed to sheer chance. It is easy to reduce the
arrival of Russian wealth to the indifferent bounty of market forces,
but sound macroeconomics and fiscal restraint supported some of the
boom. Stephen Kotkin, the professor of Russian history at Princeton,
said early this year that if surging oil and gas prices automatically
mean that states rich with hydrocarbons will enjoy instant prosperity,
ask Nigeria where its boom is.

While Russia’s economy roared, Putin was benefiting from another
unanticipated success. By 2005, the war in Chechnya had turned. The
insurgent bands were either being thinned to pockets or, in many cases,
coerced to join a pro-Kremlin government led by Ramzan Kadyrov, the
rebel turned Putin loyalist who replaced the chaos of conflict with
a local dictatorship. Fighting lingers nearby, in Ingushetia and
sometimes Dagestan, but in scale and intensity it is a fraction of
the violence of 2004. No one saw this coming. Anyone suggesting four
years ago, after the school siege in Beslan, that the war would be
reduced to skirmishes in Ingushetia and Dagestan, and that Grozny
(think: Mogadishu) would be largely rebuilt in a thousand days,
would have been dismissed as a fool. But after the school siege
ended in 2004, with more than 330 victims dead and hundreds more
injured, Russian counterterrorism was reinvigorated. Two underground
Chechen presidents were killed, and Basayev died in a mysterious
explosion. On both sides, the war had been a race for the bottom,
with horrors trumped by horrors for several years. With Beslan, the
separatists had gone too far. Chechnya’s Sufi nationalists had once
enjoyed a reputation as underdogs. But killing children was not an
image-booster; support for them collapsed.

Then came luck, courtesy of George W. Bush: The influence of foreign
Islamic fighters declined.

Foreigners had been a radicalizing presence in the war, and their
near disappearance during Putin’s second term was related to a factor
out of Putin’s hands. For several nights in late 2005, I sat with
Chechen fighters in Baku, Azerbaijan, just over Russia’s border. These
scarred men dwelt on their hatred of Putin, blaming him alike for
deaths of relatives and of hostages for whose freedom he would not
negotiate. They spoke of him as the ugly product of a weakened,
embarrassed state, and compared him to Hitler, whose rise followed
Germany’s defeat in World War I. (Hitler comparisons are tiresome
and common in some of the circles that hate Putin most. A more apt
pejorative for Putin is Putin.) Then they described an underground
railroad they had used to smuggle Arabs, Turks, and others into
Chechnya to fight. By bribing Russian guards and using roads that
pass from Azerbaijan through Dagestan, they said, the separatists
had shipped in traveling Islamic fighters for years. But by 2005, the
railroad had all but stopped. "They used to sit in the chair you are
sitting in and ask us to take them to the jihad," one of my Chechen
hosts said. "Now they do not come. They are all fighting in Iraq."

Putin, a student of what is wrong with the United States, had loudly
opposed the invasion of Iraq. But as the United States bogged down
along the Tigris and the Euphrates, the war he had stood against
was making his job easier. George Bush limped toward the end of
his presidency, facing public unease about his handling of the wars
in Afghanistan and Iraq. Vladimir Putin’s public-approval ratings
exceeded 70 percent. By this year, with memories of terrorism in
Moscow streets fading, the Chechen war had slipped from much of
the national conversation. Putin was even able to raise the subject
himself to divert uncomfortable questions about his personal life.

He had long been rumored to keep mistresses, including a relationship
with a prominent television executive whose career turned for the
better after they met. In April, a Moscow newspaper dared to publish an
article about another suspect: Alina Kabayeva, a twenty-four-year-old
former Olympic gymnast and newly appointed member of parliament. Putin
decried the story as the intrusive fantasy of a yellow press. But,
he added, "Thank God people have stopped asking about Chechnya."


In his public appearances, Putin has always displayed a Clintonesque
command of facts, as if he spent his nights reading the finer points
of policy proposals. Authentically vulgar, his mind was also swift
and facile, capable of freewheeling riffs on all manner of public
affairs. But he had rigged his own reelection in 2004, and by late
that year he seemed out of stride with powerful currents coursing
through the old Soviet space. A bloodless revolution in Georgia had
overturned another falsified election and installed a West-leaning
government, eroding the Kremlin’s influence. The Ukrainian opposition
was organizing in Kiev. Could the yearning for a new guard, evident
along Russia’s borders, spread to Red Square?

There are many essential moments in Putin’s consolidation of
power. Most publicly, it began with the arrest of oil oligarch
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an act that propelled his long climb to what
he is now. But his handling of Ukraine, at first bungled, proved to
be another.

Putin’s Ukraine policy had courted disaster. In the elections of
2004, he publicly backed a pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovich,
who had been convicted of robbery but had the support of the sordid
political machine built by Leonid Kuchma, the much-hated departing
president. Putin jumped in as if the race were a domestic affair. He
presided over a Soviet-style military parade in Kiev and committed
Russia to an energy deal that pledged to sell natural gas to Ukraine
at a deep discount through 2009. Natural gas is the lubricant of the
Ukrainian economy. It heats Ukrainian cities and powers electrical
plants and factories. Putin’s deal-to sell gas for less than a quarter
of the market rate through Yanukovich’s first presidential term-was
a subsidy-for-loyalty exchange, and promised Ukraine’s elite ample
opportunity for graft. (Reselling subsidized Russian gas at high
profits is a common insiders’ swindle.)

There was only one problem: Yanukovich was not elected. His rival,
Viktor Yushchenko, survived dioxin poisoning and emerged from
the hospital as a potent symbol against the enduring nastiness of
post-Soviet rule. Kuchma’s government falsified an election victory
for Yanukovich, but it was not enough. Hundreds of thousands of
demonstrators, and then the Ukrainian court, demanded a new vote. Putin
was scrambling for credibility.

His retaliation was precise. Russia announced that the gas deal with
Ukraine was off, and that Ukraine would have to pay market rates,
now more than five times the previous offer. Gazprom, Russia’s state
gas monopoly, set a deadline for late 2005. The threat’s timing
was carefully chosen and the irony inescapable. Ukraine faced the
prospect of gas shortages in winter. And Putin, the KGB man who had
given a Soviet-style energy subsidy to a nation to buy its loyalty,
was now lecturing Europe about the need for market rates.

As Yushchenko resisted through the deadline, Russia escalated again,
reducing pressure in pipelines feeding Ukraine. Pressure quickly began
to fall in Europe, which receives much of its gas on lines that pass
through Ukraine. In his anger that Ukraine overturned a falsified
election, Putin was cutting off gas to the West. European officials
seethed. Could he be such a neophyte? Was he not getting any better
advice? Had Putin lost his mind?

With the din rising, Yushchenko capitulated in a deal to buy gas
through a mysterious company, Rosukrenergo, at a compromise price. It
was an utterly nontransparent arrangement, and raised immediate
suspicion that insiders were profiting. After seeming cornered only
months before, Putin had won, and been successful in three ways. He
had forced Ukraine to accept his terms, he had pulled Yushchenko into
an agreement that sullied his government and image as a reformer, and
he had shown Europe that he could stand up to it as Yeltsin never did.

As the deal closed, an invigorated Putin appeared on national
television. These appearances have become scripted rituals of
daily broadcast life in Russia, during which Putin holds contrived
meetings with subordinates on sets made for state television. Putin
has many such sets available-in the Kremlin, in Sochi, and on this
evening he appeared at Novo-Ogaryovo, his suburban residence outside
Moscow. The office had a desk, a boardroom table, and a Christmas
tree. A group of us was allowed into the room to observe the faked
meeting, which would be broadcast around the Russian-speaking world
as the president receiving a report about the negotiations with
Ukraine. Putin arrived. Aleksei Miller, Gazprom’s chief executive,
and Viktor Khristenko, Russia’s energy minister, took seats before
him. The show began.

The president congratulated his men, and then turned to the subject
of the day. "I am sure that the settlement of the complex issue in
the gas sector will have a positive effect on the entire set of
Russian-Ukrainian relations," he said. "It is not only important
that Russia’s approach to calculating the gas price was recognized
as justified, but that our relations are assuming a new quality and
becoming a truly transparent market partnership." Nothing about the new
partnership was transparent, and relations with Ukraine had hardened.

After he finished talking, his daily TV segment done, he looked over
at us. For a moment, Putin stared. Then he spoke. "S Novim Godom,"
he said. This is a Russian holiday greeting, words in Russia that
carry great cheer. Coming from most any other mouth it would mean
"Happy New Year." Coming from Putin, it carried another message:
Get out of my room.


For all of Putin’s domestic success, and in spite of his good luck,
Russia remains bedeviled by problems. Social services are poor, and
corruption has become total. Russian public services are so wormy
with dishonesty and dysfunction that patients bribe doctors for care,
parents buy access to schools for their children and grades for their
report cards, and the police shake down drivers with a regularity
resembling taxation. The court system is a sham, vulnerable to bribery
and political instruction. Racial and ethnic violence is widespread,
and murders of minorities occur with morbid frequency.

Russia’s army, far behind Western levels of professionalism and
standards of equipment, is further weakened by high rates of draft
dodging, which are elevated by traditions of conscript hazing. Its
record of human-rights violations is appalling. Putin has consolidated
the Kremlin’s control over key economic sectors-oil, gas, pipelines,
aircraft and vehicle manufacture, arms dealing, banking, and metals-and
the billionaires have been brought under the Kremlin’s sway. But there
are more oligarchs now than in 2000, suggesting that wealth has not
been redistributed in ways Putin had pledged, even as inflation and
a real estate bubble have eroded middle-class spending power.

All of these are issues that might motivate a growing middle class to
ask questions about its government. So how did Vladimir Putin build so
much prestige and muster the strength to assert himself on the world?

The easy answer, the one you’ve heard, is that he rolled back civil
liberties and created a neo-Soviet state, securing his own power by
limiting everyone else’s. Since 2000, Putin’s Kremlin has replaced
independent television with lapdog television, stifled political
competitors, expelled foreigners and harried nongovernmental
organizations that criticize the state, abolished the elections
for governors and replaced them with a system in which the Kremlin
appoints regional leaders. The effect has been a drought of candor and
vibrancy in Russia’s public conversation. These days, free speech does
not extend much beyond venting online, a single bold radio station,
and the work of a few small, rambunctious newspapers.

But the insistence that Russia is returning to Soviet times is a
claim resting on omission and exaggeration. This is not the nightmare
of Soviet rule, and not just because Russians have access to food
and foreign goods. Putin’s Russia is a canny autocracy, a system
that exerts intensive control over political society but offers
pressure-release valves in individual life. In Russia, Internet use is
largely unfettered, cell-phone ownership is profligate, the pursuit of
money is an organizing ideology, and foreign travel is common. Under
the old guard, all of these would have been regarded as threats to
the state.

So what is this new Russia? A few years ago I sat one cold morning with
a Western diplomat who was contemplating Putin. Western governments,
he said, often criticized the Kremlin for not emulating democratic
systems of government, and accused Putin of backsliding toward
strongman rule. The diplomat saw the backsliding. But he suggested
that there was actually a high degree of emulation of the West.

The Kremlin’s political apparatus routinely falsified elections. It
compelled laborers, students, and government employees to vote for
its candidates. It doctored voter lists. It used tax in-spectors and
police to harass opposition members. It manipulated media coverage
and released invented vote results. In the daily administration of
government affairs, the state perched atop a sprawling machinery of
graft that spirited away money from all manner of public works. And
the state’s penetration of the strategic industries extended the graft
throughout the economy. Although checks and balances existed in the
law, in practice they had been subverted. The Kremlin controlled
the legislature and courts. Law-enforcement agencies-from the tax
police to the successors of the KGB-worked at its bidding. No new face
could stand against Putin or his men. "We keep urging them to embrace
and practice democracy," the diplomat said. "But actually, when you
look at it, the Kremlin has done a pretty good job of copying the
state of democracy in American urban machines of the early twentieth
century. It’s not that far from Tammany Hall."

Put another way, Putin’s autocracy is a cunning blend of ruling
ideas from the old Soviet regime with many of the material pleasures
of capitalist life, a form of government for strongmen who did
their homework. And just as they accept that freer markets are more
efficient than planned economies, and that pining for foreign goods
is not treason, Putin and his circle understand that Russia’s people
can say what they wish in their kitchens without endangering the
state. This allows for democratic pretenses with centralized rule
and insider access to the profits of governing. The Kremlin today
does not control everything. It does not try to. Putin’s circle
exerts control over the profits of the most lucrative industries, and
bares its teeth at actual threats to power. Repression is no longer
total. It is precise, and its weight is brought down, often publicly,
on the few who stand up to the state.

Putin will be remembered for many things, but to the list should be
added his government’s skills at mimicry. Throughout his second term,
he smothered foes by creating obedient duplicates of them. These
are the Kremlin’s Stepford Wives. Western journalists have covered
Russia critically? Putin launches Russia Today, a twenty-four-hour,
state-controlled English-language television station that acts less
as a news agency than as a sycophant with a British accent. Opposition
youth groups-Otpor! ("Resistance!"), Kmara! ("Enough!"), Pora! ("It’s
time!")-helped topple tired postcommunist governments in Serbia,
Georgia, and Ukraine? The Kremlin creates Nashi, or "Ours," a youth
organization whose demonstrations praise the power and whose ranks
serve as an unofficial reserve of street loyalty to be mobilized at
will. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which
leads the region’s most credible election-observation missions, was
publicly documenting election-rigging in the old Soviet space? The
Kremlin deploys its own observers to declare rigged elections free
and fair.

To all the world, these duplicates are crude Orwellian inventions,
calling things the opposite of what they are. To Putin, they are
accoutrements of power. He has seemed pleased to watch his subjects
disgrace themselves in the service of his needs.


For years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia’s liberals and
Westerners alike hoped that the freed people and new republics would
form law-abiding and democratic states. Putin’s rule has labored to
prevent that from happening, and the old Soviet world has hardened
to its new shape. Across the rolling expanse of steppe, forest, and
mountain range formerly under Kremlin rule, every single government
unfailingly declares itself democratic. But aside from in the Baltic
states, few in the region can speak candidly on television or the
radio, or watch a free and independent news broadcast of local origin,
or enjoy unmolested public assembly that criticizes the government,
or have a fair hearing before an impartial judge in a court where
the law is the highest authority, or select leaders from a slate
of candidates who have been allowed to campaign openly and without
restriction. This is the state of the Russian-speaking world nearly
two decades after the wall came down.

This is his world. When Moscow proved too opaque, this is where I
would go to see Vladimir Putin’s reflection.

In Belarus, the opposition to President Aleksandr Lukashenko was
portrayed on state television news (the only broadcast news in the
country) as homosexual, drug-abusing, and in the pay of spies. Campaign
managers were jailed, as were the protestors against electoral
abuses. Both opposition candidates that stood against Lukashenko
were arrested during and after the race, and one, Aleksandr Kazulin,
was sentenced to five and a half years in jail for leading a protest
march. He was released this year to attend the funeral of his wife,
who died of cancer, and then led back to his cell.

Kazulin’s fate has been less harsh than others. In Tajikistan in 2005,
Makhmadrouzi Iskandarov, an opposition leader who said he would run
for president, was convicted of terrorism and other charges. He was
sentenced to twenty-three years in jail at a closed trial.

In Kazakhstan that year, a newspaper editor who published court
documents from the United States detailing the corruption of President
Nursultan Nazarbayev was mugged by men who carved a censor’s X across
his chest. Two prominent opposition politicians died of gunshot wounds
around election time. One, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, was found shot twice
in the chest and once in the head. (The police suggested the death
was a suicide, the three shots apparently evidence of resolve.) The
other, Altynbek Sarsenbaiuly, was bound at the wrists and murdered
in early 2006 by officers from Kazakhstan’s former KGB.

In Uzbekistan, protestors, many chanting "Freedom," were dispersed
by government machine-gun fire in 2005. No outsider knows how many
people died, and President Islam Karimov blocked all independent
reviews. Blocked is euphemism here: Two survivors who were interviewed
by me and two colleagues were later dragged from a refugee camp
by Uzbek intelligence officers and imprisoned after show trials;
a local journalist who assisted us had a bounty placed on his head
by the Uzbek government for his own writings. Soon after, he was shot.

In Azerbaijan, after the last parliamentary election, demonstrators
and candidates were clubbed by phalanxes of riot police and chased
by trucks with water cannons after protesting the intimidation,
vote stuffing, and rigged counts that accompanied the ruling party’s
overwhelming official victory.

In Turkmenistan, after the dictator Saparmurat Niyazov died, the
man in line to be acting president was arrested, securing another
insider’s path to power.

In Armenia, the government declared a state of emergency amid street
protests to a flawed vote, and sent tanks to disperse the crowds.

During Putin’s second term, I traveled to each of these former Soviet
nations and observed their political machines. In Russia, where I
lived, control of elections is almost total. But across the region,
there are shades in the palette of repression and official crime, and
the Kremlin’s election-season repression was less crude and violent
than in many former Soviet states. Putin, who had the opportunity to
be a democrat, instead chose to lead this club. At a time when he was
popular and powerful, he never trusted Russia’s people or politics
enough to allow a free vote. He dashed his chance at legitimacy and
surrendered the possibility that Russia might wield moral weight.

Instead, as he became Russia’s preeminent man, he pulled the
levers of a reinvigorated state to suit himself. And this year when
Russia invaded Georgia, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili was
instantly assigned the role of criminal on Russian TV, just as Mikhail
Khodorkovsky had been before him.


Early this year, Putin was challenged by a reporter at a news
conference over the continued vote fabrications in Chechnya. There,
according to the government’s figures for the parliamentary election
last year, 99 percent of the voters had cast ballots, and 99 percent
of the ballots were for the political party Putin leads. Such election
figures have been rivaled only in Kim Jong-il’s North Korea, Mao’s
China, Niyazov’s Turkmenistan, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. They were
especially absurd for a vote in Chechnya, a land shaped by cycles of
resistance to Russian rule, and that had been brought back to yoke by
force. The correspondent wanted to know: Did the president of Russia
find these numbers credible?

Putin declined to answer. Instead, he asked a state journalist from
Chechnya to answer for him. The young Chechen quickly stood. "These
are absolutely realistic figures," he said, grinning obsequiously. And
Vladimir Putin watched with a mix of satisfaction and boredom, the
face of unchecked power itself.