- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2003

When Russians don’t like a regime or some movementwithin their country, they put “shchina” at end of its name.

Right now the current nemesis is “Putinshchina.”

Certain Western commentators chime in that President Vladimir Putin is becoming authoritarian. One writer compares him to the French Emperor Napoleon III. Another claims that Mr. Putin, ex-chief of the FSB, successor to the Soviet KGB, has no respect for democracy. He and his police cronies, it is claimed, have all but taken over leadership of the Russian Federation.

These critics note that the Putin state prosecutor’s recent arrest and expected sentencing of multibillionaire oil magnate, Mikhail Khodorkovsky for fraud, tax evasion and other economic crimes is a good example of an ominous trend in the Putin Kremlin. This indictment, they insist, is groundless and politically motivated. Likewise, Mr. Putin’s “clampdown” on parts of the media, air and print, say such observers, should be viewed in the same light.

Such a threatening trend in Russia should likewise be worrisome to all peoples worldwide —assuming, that is, that Russia under Mr. Putin is indeed about to take a backward step to some rejuvenated form of police-state authoritarianism. Russia, after all, is the world’s largest country. While no longer perhaps a “superpower,” it nevertheless possesses much actual and potential economic, military, and political clout. It wields a veto among the five permanent members of U.N. Security Council.

But are these criticisms of the Putin administration valid?

Some observers in the West and in Russia doubt that the trend is as serious as it is made out to be. They view as politically motivated many of the antiPutin newspaper op-eds that appear these days in the Russian and Western press.

Many of these published commentators, some observers note, are self-admitted socialists or other types of leftists who despise capitalism in any form. Among them are writers who claim, without basis, that the “Yeltsin” Constitution is a mere scrap of paper, that it gives too much power to the executive branch. Yet, what they may actually resent is the non-socialist character of the essentially non-ideological, democratic charter of 1993 that is stoutly defended by reputable jurists in Russia..

Such observers deny that the indictment of Khodorkovsky, like those against other now-exiled “tycoons” (Gusinsky and Berezovsky), is an attempt by the Putin government to win popularity among anti-Semitic elements within the Russian population. Or that the indictments are designed to help Putin acquire “absolute” power.

As to Mr. Putin’s alleged crackdown on the media, this, too, claim some observers, is exaggerated. Mr. Putin has sought merely to keep moneyed influence out of the nation’s means of communication. Extensive corruption at the top of some media conglomerates has been proved. To think that the Russia’s new, constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms will go out the window is untrue.

The Khodorkovsky case itself is an example of a tycoon who got out of control. No mere “robber baron” type of the American 1890s, Mr. Khodorkovsky had gained a foothold on the nation’s most valued natural resource, oil. Through his position as CEO of the Yukos Oil Company, Mr. Khodorkovsky’s money from this lucrative business was flowing without restraint into the hands of Mr. Putin opponents. Khodorkovsky was out, as it were, to “buy the presidency.” He himself even had presidential ambitions. His power over a natural resource was mounting in ways that would never have been tolerated, say, in America, assuming it would have been attempted during the long-bygone era of burgeoning monopolies.

By and large, Mr. Putin appears to be doing merely what comes naturally to the executive power of any nation-state: namely, defending the state’s, and people’s, interests. The current dumping on Mr. Putin by political partisans of opposing political persuasions and ideologies should be regarded as just that, partisan criticism. Such forces seek to weaken a leader who has become popular in Russia because he is bringing law and order into big business and the business of government.

Indeed, in polls, a majority of Russians deny that Mr. Putin’s measures detract from his often declared support for widening democracy in post-Soviet Russia.

Albert L. Weeks, professor emeritus at New York University, is a longtime observer of Russian politics.

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