Vladimir Superman Putin Riding the Cronies to Victory

By in Moscow

Part 2: 'Putin Was Always Right'

The party saw its best returns in places where United Russia is headed by questionable figures accused of corruption and cronyism -- or with images shrouded by banditry and crime, as in Chechnya. Putin's express wish a few days before the election -- that the victory should be "overwhelming" -- could only have been understood by unscrupulous provincial leaders as a request for the maximum possible result for United Russia, by any means necessary.

Putin laid the conditions for this victory in a deliberate and orderly way. He knew what he was doing when he named Vladimir Churov chair of the Central Election Commission last March. Churov is a parliamentarian from Vladimir Zhirinovsky's populist right-wing Liberal Democratic party. But the man had long made it known that "the first law of Churov" was that "Putin was always right."

At a demonstration in St. Petersburg, two years ago, Churov lauded a book called Ruhnama ("The Book of the Soul") by the now-deceased dictator of Turkmenistan, Turkmenbashi, who was by all accounts a paranoid despot. Churov praised the work as "warm and clear, like the autumn sun of Turkmenistan." The Russian election-chief-to-be said it would be "useful for many countries and people to have a book like Ruhnama." Putin could be sure that a man like Churov could organize appropriate election results for United Russia.

Imaginary Life

The current system of power in Russia was once described in careful detail by a German writer. The life of public institutions, in her analysis, had become "an imaginary life, in which bureaucracies alone became the active element." Now and then "demonstrations were organized to let crowds of people applaud speeches by the leader, and approve certain resolutions with a single voice -- in other words, in principle, a clique system." Rosa Luxembourg wrote that in 1918, observing the fragile German government after World War I.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian bureaucracies had to gradually reinvent themselves. Putin became their protector, his public campaign against "corrupt bureaucrats" notwithstanding. What that really meant is demonstrated by the fact that after eight years of Putin's presidency, not one of the thousands of bureaucrats in the Kremlin has been charged with corruption -- although many pursue murky business deals. Even in Russian intelligence agencies, a suggestive cliché has gained currency -- "the fish rots from the head."

The Duma elections, essentially a plebiscite for Putin, have strengthened a party which, despite tight grip on power, is only a pale reflection of the all-powerful Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Something that the Russian dissident Andrei Amalrik wrote in 1969 about the Soviet bureaucracy also applies to the composition of United Russia. According to Amalrik, a kind of negative selection process took place in the bureaucratic elite: the brave and the independent were forced out, to the benefit of the weak and indecisive. A good example of the current breed of top officials is provided by the Duma speaker and United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov, an obedient follower of orders who lacks any ideas of his own. It remains a mystery how exactly Putin intends to achieve his promised breakthrough to an innovative high-tech economy with such staff.

Such a system of power can only expect limited loyalty, even from those responsible for state security. In addition, Putin's power base consists of a very small group of officials, of which a large part used to work in the St. Petersburg city administration and were active members of the same dacha association as Putin. Even in Soviet times, such a narrowing of the power base was unthinkable.

Merciless Power Struggles

Not even Stalin would have surrounded himself mainly with old comrades from his home in the Caucasus. Putin's system is hence much more vulnerable than the Soviet system ever was during its heyday. Despite Putin's overwhelming popularity, rival clans are preparing themselves for merciless power struggles.

Shortly before the election, a deputy finance minister was detained amid accusations that he had embezzled $43 million. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, a Putin confidant, intervened on behalf of the detainee and proclaimed him innocent. The head of the drug control agency, Viktor Cherkesov, has been missing one of his generals for the last two months -- he is in detention awaiting trial. Cherkesov, a Putin associate from their KGB times, claims the arrested general is the victim of a set-up. The domestic secret service FSB organized the arrests in both cases.

Right up to the night of the election, Putin remained mum about the office he would like to take after his election victory. His term as president will end in May 2008 -- and uncertainty is already growing. Those with political clout surrounding Putin have already begun a no-holds-barred fight for power, money and influence. Moscow's corrupt elite are nervous.

Powerhungry clans, completely unfettered by inhibition, are triggering dangerous quarrels. Reason and a willingness to compromise are two attributes lacking among Moscow's powerful.

In that sense, the "stability" and "continuation of the political course" that Putin's propagandists have been boasting about could be lost before the snow on the Kremlin roof has a chance to thaw.


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