Vladimir Putin was inaugurated president of Russia with the pomp and circumstance of a czarist coronation. Since then he has performed true to czarist form. Many fear that Mr. Putin’s inauguration portends an autocratic style of government something he has already shown an affinity for. Mr. Putin’s Soviet-era KGB past wasn’t too far removed at the inauguration. Vladimir Kryuchkov, KGB chief under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, was present at the invitation-only event. Mr. Kryuchkov was a lead organizer of the 1991 anti-Perestroika coup against Mr. Gorbachev that sought to restore hard-line communist rule.
Although many Russians have indicated they want a strong hand to lead the country, Mr. Putin has so far demonstrated that he is willing to use his power to suppress press freedoms but not to dismantle the “kleptocracy” that blights competition and development in Russia. Last month, Press Minister Mikhail Lesin said that Russia’s law on terrorism “prohibits mass media from giving propaganda opportunities both to terrorists and people suspected of involvement in activities which fall under the category of terrorist acts.” In doing so, Mr. Lesin attempted to restrict news outlets from interviewing Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov.
Even worse was the shocking Reuters dispatch which described a raid on May 11, allegedly by “tax collectors,” three of them wearing black ski-masks, on a major media group in Moscow, one which has been critical of the Kremlin, especially over the war in Chechnya. Following that, a Russian journalist, Igor Domnikov, was attacked with a hammer in the entrance to his apartment house. Mr.Domnikov works for a Moscow magazine, Novaya Gazeta, which has exposed government corruption.
And all of this follows the month-long detention in late January by the Russian military of Andrei Babitskii of Radio Liberty, who had been covering the war in Chechnya.
Meanwhile, Mr. Putin has allowed Boris Berezovsky, a crony of former President Boris Yeltsin and allegedly a member of Russia’s Mafia of oligarchs, to purchase 60 percent of Russia’s aluminum industry in an apparent violation of the country’s antitrust laws. More significantly, late last month Russia’s parliament, reportedly as a result of Kremlin pressure, fired Russia’s chief prosecutor Yuri Skuratov, who was investigating corruption in Mr. Yeltsin’s inner circle, including some family members.
More positively, perhaps, immediately after he was sworn in as Russia’s president, Mr. Putin named the reform-minded Mikhail Kasyanov as premier. If nothing else, this indicates that he wants to stay on good terms with the International Monetary Fund. In addition, the president has demonstrated his willingness to begin dismantling Russia’s nuclear arsenal, although he has also shown a determined opposition to U.S. plans to develop a missile defense system.
Despite the inauguration’s veneer of splendor, structural, economic frailties have brought Russia to its knees financially. Mr. Putin must promptly turn his attention away from gilded symbolism and use his powers to push forward economic reform and battle Mafia tycoons. The return of KGB-style repression and state control of media and free expression will assuredly not help Russia to get back on its feet.