Empire of the czar

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If you want to read something truly alarming about Vladimir Putin's regime in Russia, read Anders Aslund's report published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Aslund, who has been writing perceptively about Russia since the late 1980s, says that Putin since the March 2004 election has succeeded in removing all centers of power but his own, and that he has made one public blunder after another—launching the Khodorovsky prosecution, botching the Beslan school hostage seizure, intervening unsuccessfully in the election in Ukraine and ineffectively reforming social benefits. He writes that "the positive status quo ante can hardly be restored" and speculates that Putin may be forced to step down before his term ends in 2008, by a coup of KGB veterans or by a popular uprising.

Aslund is more hopeful on some points. He says that Russia, thanks in part to Putin's first-term economic reforms, has a market economy and should be welcomed by the United States into the WTO. And, he says, the United States should cooperate with Russia on energy production. But overall the picture he paints is bleak. And this in a country which, as he does not note, is in deep and dangerous demographic decline.

I have made three trips to Russia, in October 1989, July 1996, and March 2000. In October 1989 there was a feeling of great hope, as the somewhat freely elected Supreme Soviet convened and the old system was being challenged. Ordinary Russians for the first time in years felt comfortable sharing their hopes and views with American reporters. In July 1996, there was more guarded hope, as Boris Yeltsin ran against Communist Genadi Zhuganov and, with the help of the newly rich oligarchs who controlled the media, won. Voters were more guarded now, and there were signs that economic reforms had been botched; but things seemed headed in a good direction.

In March 2000, as Vladimir Putin ran for president with no serious opposition, voters were more guarded. They were supporting Putin mostly, but with the resigned air; they seemed to be saying, "I hope the new czar is a good czar." Now the picture Aslund paints is eerily similar to the autocratic, terrified, potentially violent Russia depicted by Alexis de Tocqueville's contemporary, Astolphe de Custine, in Empire of the Czars. Deeply depressing.