21.08.2009 | Christopher Walker

A Decade of Putinism


Ten years ago on Sunday, Russia’s Duma confirmed Vladimir Putin as prime minister. The vote took place only one week after then-President Boris Yeltsin had nominated the little-known former KGB operative for the post. Yeltsin’s surprise resignation only four months later left Mr. Putin as acting president and paved the way for his election as head of state in March 2000. This swift and far-from-transparent ascent to the pinnacle of Russian power was a sign of things to come.

Over the past decade Vladimir Putin has used the instruments of the state to forge what is known in Russian as a "vertical of power," a governance model in which authority is tightly consolidated at the top. Putinism captured the Russian zeitgeist as people were hungry for stability, or at least the appearance of stability. The system’s core features include the political control of the country’s dominant energy sector, the quest to restore Russia’s global power status, and a heavy-handed reassertion of Russian influence in former Soviet states.

The most striking quality of Putinism, though, is its hostility to free expression. This decade-long assault on a fundamental human right is not a reprise of the uniform, all-encompassing ideological control that was the hallmark of the Soviet period. To give Russia the veneer of a liberal society and simultaneously create a useful societal steam valve, authorities have come up with a new, selective censorship model. In this system, the state tries to censor information of true political consequence while allowing a certain amount of independence at the margins.

The control of the mass media has become a top priority in the Putin era. The state has now captured or tamed all of the major national television channels. The Kremlin first wrested control of NTV, which at the time Mr. Putin became president was known for its hard-hitting coverage, including of the conflict in Chechnya. Right after Vladimir Putin’s election to the presidency, then-NTV owner Vladimir Gusinsky was charged with fraud and briefly jailed. In 2001 state energy giant Gazprom took control of the station. Around the same time, the Kremlin turned the state-owned but until then more independent-minded Channel One and RTR—the other two main stations with national reach—into government mouthpieces.

While there is rich diversity in entertainment programs, informal blacklists prevent Putin critics from gaining access to national public-affairs programs. A steady flow of Kremlin-friendly propaganda, meanwhile, vilifies the remnants of Russia’s political opposition and independent civil society.

The Kremlin has not only marginalized domestic dissent but also tried to suppress the work of foreign media. Capricious tax inspections and vague extremism laws are designed to intimidate international broadcasters, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the BBC. Using these methods, authorities have already shut down 28 of the 36 Russian radio stations that used to carry RFE/RL programs.

As hard-nosed as the Kremlin’s institutional controls of free expression are, it is at the personal, extralegal level where the modern censorship model gets truly ugly. The few brave journalists and activists who still dare to criticize the government—particularly those who try to expose state corruption and human-rights violations—live in constant danger.

Less than two weeks after President Barack Obama’s July visit to Moscow, Natalya Estemirova, of the Russian human rights group Memorial, was kidnapped outside her home in Grozny, Chechnya. She was found dead later that day in the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia, with two bullet wounds in her body and one "control shot" to her head. The 50-year-old Estemirova was a leading human-rights activist who openly criticized Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, and his repressive methods. A week later, human rights activist Andrei Kulagin was found dead in a sand pit near the northwestern city of Petrozavodsk. And just this Tuesday, Zarema Sadulayeva, the head of a children’s charity in Chechnya, and her husband were found murdered in the boot of a car.

These most recent murders were preceded by a string of other still unsolved killings, including that of Stanislav Markelov, a well-known human rights lawyer, who in January was gunned down not far from the Kremlin, along with Anastasia Baburova, a journalist for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Anna Politkovskaya, a famous Novaya Gazeta reporter who worked on human-rights abuses in Chechnya, was murdered in her Moscow apartment building in October 2006.

After a decade of Putinism, a deep chill on free expression has set in. Self-censorship has become a matter of survival. The rule of law, though much discussed, does not exist. Corruption flourishes at all levels of society. The assault on Russia’s freedom is not just a domestic human-rights problem. Anyone seeking to do business in the country loses in a system that operates in the dark, where shady deals involving state-run companies and corrupt officials are the norm and police and regulatory agencies don’t enforce the law but the Kremlin’s agenda.

Early hopes that the new president, Dmitri Medvedev, would bring more openness and liberalization have been shattered. Even though Mr. Putin has returned to the premiership after an eight-year hiatus, it seems he—rather than his hand-picked successor—is still calling the shots.

Given the continued censorship, human-rights abuses and lawlessness in Russia, it would almost be worse for the country’s reform prospects if Mr. Medvedev really were in full control of his presidency. It would mean that Putinism is now so entrenched, it no longer needs Mr. Putin to enforce it.

Mr. Walker is director of studies at Freedom House and the editor of "Undermining Democracy: 21st Century Authoritarians" (Freedom House, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia, 2009).

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