The Path to Tyranny: Putin's Russia Is Becoming a Flawless Dictatorship

By Georg Diez, Walter Mayr and Matthias Schepp

Vladimir Putin is rapidly transforming Russia into a repressive state reminiscent of the Soviet Union, and the Pussy Riot trial is the climax in his campaign against the opposition. However, following massive media attention, his crackdown on the punk band could backfire.

Photo Gallery: Pussy Riot on Trial Photos
DPA

The window through which the world currently views Vladimir Putin's Russia is narrow and can only be opened from the outside -- like the feeding door of a cage.

The window is part of the glass enclosure in which the defendants are held during trials in Moscow's Khamovniki district court. As long as it's open, it serves as their connection to the outside world. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was Russia's richest man until 2003 and has been its most famous prisoner since then, used it to deliver a couple of words to the world when he was put on trial here for a second time in 2010.

Last Wednesday, it was the voice of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova that was coming from the cage. Tolokonnikova, a 22-year-old student, together with two other members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot, were being charged with "hooliganism." When the verdict is pronounced on Friday, the women could be sentenced to up to three years in prison.

The charge is documented in videos showing the musicians, wearing ski masks, giving a performance on Feb. 21, 2012, in front of the wall of icons in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. The lyrics included the following: "Mother of God, Virgin Mary, drive Putin away," "Holy shit, shit, Lord's shit," and "The patriarch believes in Putin / Bastard, better believe in God."

In their closing statements to the court, the defendants tried to refute the charge of "hooliganism." Tolokonnikova, with her neatly plucked eyebrows and perfectly styled hair, unabashedly referred to other people who went to extremes to defend their beliefs: St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian church; the writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who was sentenced to death for his resistance to religious and secular rulers alike; and Gulag chronicler Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, who predicted "that words will crush concrete."

Ridiculing Putin

Was it hubris or heartfelt? What will really be at stake in the court building on the banks of the Moskva River when the women of Pussy Riot are sentenced before the eyes of the global public? Some say it is merely a case of badly behaved, defiant regime opponents who would not have met with as much approval in Russia if it hadn't been for the regime's reaction, which included five-and-a-half months of pretrial detention for the accused, two of them young mothers. Others say that the case exposes the entire Putin system to ridicule.

The video of their performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on the Internet, and the images of Tolokonnikova's fiery statements against the Putin state will be viewed millions of times.

As a result, the attractive young woman and her companions have already achieved more than many of the opposition leaders and critical artists who have grown old in their resistance against Putin. The members of the punk band, notwithstanding their simple messages, stand for a Russia that is fed up with an arbitrary legal system, state control and corrupt elites.

Most of all, it has had enough of the man who had once promised to liberate his country from the legacy of the communist dictatorship, whose tough, opposition-crushing leadership style was met with great approval in large parts of the country at the beginning. Instead, he has guided his autocratic state along a path that is already heading for a repressive regime in which opposition members are arrested indiscriminately and their homes searched by the authorities, a regime where prosecutors shape their indictments to suit political requirements and intimidate opponents through interrogation. The whole thing is controlled by a man who could very well rule Russia with his tyrannical methods until 2024: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, 59.

'Flawless Democrat'

It was an oligarch, the media czar Boris Berezovsky, who orchestrated Putin's move into the Kremlin around the turn of the millennium. At the time, most Russians welcomed Putin, a judo practitioner and staunch opponent of alcohol. They had had enough of his eternally sickly predecessor Boris Yeltsin, who was increasingly drunk in public. The West hoped that the young, apparently inexperienced Kremlin leader would continue Yeltsin's foreign policy, which emphasized rapprochement, and that it would also be less erratic.

Putin's speech to the German parliament, the Bundestag, on Sept. 25, 2001, fueled expectations that the former KGB officer, who spoke German fluently, would modernize Russia and champion European values. Such illusions culminated in a now-famous comment by then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder who, in November 2004, described his Moscow friend as a "flawless democrat."

Putin has since disappointed his German friends, whose expectations were in any case too high. They had refused to believe that Russia still viewed itself as an independent power between Europe and Asia, that 500 years of authoritarian rule under the czars and the communists could not be shed overnight, and the reservations against the West would not simply disappear because Russians like to drink Coca-Cola and carry designer bags by Yves Saint Laurent.

They also knew too little about Putin himself, who, in the years of turmoil, had only made it as far as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg.

Severity and Ruthlessness

Nevertheless, there had always been signs that Putin was convinced that he could only perform his duties with severity and ruthlessness. In the summer of 1991, for example, when the Soviet realm was collapsing, Putin moved into his office in St. Petersburg and promptly had the portrait of Lenin removed and replaced with one of Peter the Great.

A janitor had brought Putin two images of the czar. The first one depicted the young Peter, looking amiable and idealistic, a modernizer who wanted to open the "window to Europe" for his giant, backward country. Putin rejected the picture.

Instead, he chose one of a serious-looking older czar, marked by many battles and conflicts, one who had expanded his realm with new conquests, and one whose rule was so ruthless that he had his own son tortured to death after accusing him of being involved in a conspiracy.

Putin's preference for the ruthless version of Peter the Great could be symptomatic of the entire Putin era, which has already lasted for 12 years and, according to the constitution, could persist for another 12 years.

Solidifying Power

Putin, nervous and insecure in the early days of his rule, had hardly assumed the office of president before he used an overdue judicial reform to put all senior judges under the Kremlin's control. That move meant that the separation of the executive and the judiciary, a fundamental aspect of every Western democracy, had been suspended in a key area.

The war in the Caucasus offered the young president the opportunity to solidify his power. After repeated attacks by Chechen terrorists, which claimed hundreds of lives, Putin went about strengthening the Kremlin's centralized power and, in December 2004, eliminated the direct election of provincial governors by the people for the next eight years.

Putin also expected loyalty from the oligarchs, who had been coddled by Yeltsin. Those who did not toe the line were forced out of the country or inundated with trials. With the help of the FSB, the country's domestic intelligence agency, Putin created new empires of oligarchs devoted to him. From then on, the property of the wealthiest Russians was only secure if they remained loyal to Putin.

In his first two terms, Putin still tried to preserve a delicate balance between conservative hardliners and liberal-minded parts of the Moscow power elite. He used the struggle between the two camps over the global power's foreign policy direction and control over the most lucrative parts of the Russian economy to expand his own power. It gave him the role of an arbitrator, making Putin the ultimate judge.

Rolling Back Reforms

But after his four years as prime minister and his return to the Kremlin in early May, Putin abandoned his conciliatory approach. Demands for more democracy and development of Russia's weak civil society were suddenly viewed as subversive.

He quickly had his party, United Russia, which had increasingly taken on the structures and rituals of the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the more than 10 years of its existence, drastically tighten laws against demonstrations. Leading members of the opposition were attacked with smear campaigns.

In only three months Putin, with the help of his absolute majority in the Duma, repealed the few reforms that his predecessor Dmitry Medvedev, with whom he had switched places, had managed to carry out. The president and his closest advisers saw these reforms as the real fuel for the mass protests that had become part of everyday life in Moscow since the parliamentary election at the end of last year. Most of all, Medvedev's essay "Forward, Russia," published in September 2009, had triggered hopes of a freer Russia within the well-educated urban middle class.

Putin's successor had created an atmosphere in which the middle class had become active, recognizing that a different, modern Russia could be possible. This political thaw had since been recognized as a mistake, says Moscow political scientist Vitaly Ivanov. Putin's team responded to Medvedev's stated principle that freedom is always preferable to the lack of freedom with the conviction that order is always better than disorder.

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1. Putin's farm.
yiannaki 08/13/2012
Putin's farm: All democraties are democratic, but some are getting more democratic than others.
2. Concerning “…performance in the Cathedral of Christ"
AliceSofia 08/14/2012
Concerning “…performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior”… and further concerning words used as “lyrics”: Whatever the cause is, the protesters have no right on blasphemies against God, “performance” in His temple, and personal insults to His servant – the patriarch. Another profanity is this “punk” woman’s identification of herself with St. Stephan the first Christian martyr. Her tactic is dirty propaganda in classical Marxist style, although she apparently for freedom of “democracy.” I hope, she will have the punishment from the judgment of Russian people for blasphemy and insults in God’s temple, but the worst punishment is that what she is herself and what she has done to avert the people from the cause she apparently tried to make. I do not think that any person with sound judgment would see such form of protest as anything but hooliganism and attempt to gain cheep popularity by any means. Alice-Sofia
3. No Sweat
jws1 08/14/2012
It is not worth to comment this article in details. It is propaganda at its best. But the content is just bullshit. No wonder, that you lose more and more readers. But people recognize now. Russia Today is one of the most seen news channels in the world.
4.
baoluo 08/23/2012
---Quote (Originally by jws1)--- It is not worth to comment this article in details. It is propaganda at its best. But the content is just bullshit. No wonder, that you lose more and more readers. But people recognize now. Russia Today is one of the most seen news channels in the world. ---End Quote--- Oh, you're just being a nationalist fool in your reply. If you were intelligent and reflective, you would see the stench coming from your Russian presidency. Putin is a dictator. Admit it and you will be free in yourself.
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