Thursday, February 22, 2024

Vladimir Putin shows he is in control


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MOSCOW: President Vladimir V Putin’s freeing of Mikhail B Khodorkovsky, Russia’s best-known prisoner, by swift, personal fiat capped a remarkable string of single-handed decisions of late.
On Tuesday, he outmanoeuvred the West for sway over financially troubled Ukraine with a unilateral decision to provide $15 billion in loans. On Wednesday, at his direction, Parliament passed an amnesty bill that could free thousands of prisoners. On Friday, he pardoned Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos oil tycoon and onetime aspiring political rival.
That was just last week.
Earlier this month, Putin shocked Moscow’s political and media circles with a surprise announcement that he would remake RIA-Novosti, the semi-independent state news agency, under the direction of a Kremlin loyalist.
The decisions demonstrate Putin’s singular ability not only to wield executive power but also to bend the legislative and judicial branches of government to his will, and to exert heavy control over the Russian news media.
“What we are seeing is a president who has no limits on his power in a country that never was democratic, that never had anything called a balance of power — where one of the estates could balance the power of another,” said Vladimir Posner, one of Russia’s most prominent television journalists, with his own nightly show on Channel One, the premiere government-controlled station. “There is no Fourth Estate,” he said. “And as a matter of fact there is no Second or Third Estate. There is just the First, just the presidency. That’s the way things are today in Russia.”
As he prepares to begin his 15th year as Russia’s paramount political leader, Putin’s sweeping authority gives him far more leverage than his counterparts in the West to influence the course of events and, at times, to set the agenda in world affairs.
In defiance of the United States, Russia granted temporary asylum to the former national security contractor Edward J Snowden, with Putin portraying him as a whistleblower. Putin also averted a US military strike on Syria with a plan to disarm its chemical weapons.
Yet all of his recent moves carry serious risks. Releasing Khodorkovsky could well set loose a vengeful rival, with the money and will to do everything possible to force Putin from power. The bailout of Ukraine could easily turn into a financial debacle, exacerbating Russia’s own creeping economic problems, should Ukraine continue stumbling toward default.
And scrapping RIA-Novosti, a respected news agency, in favour of a replacement already being derided as a Soviet-style propaganda arm, could undermine the credibility needed to cultivate the public image that Putin has sought for Russia as a re-ascendant power, able to challenge the West.
Supporters of Putin say that his actions reflect sure-footed pursuit of a plan to build a greater Russia, evidenced by mega-vanity projects like the Sochi Olympics that will burnish the image of both the president and his country. A magnanimous gesture like freeing Khodorkovsky, they say, demonstrates his statesmanship and deflects any criticism of authoritarianism.
Critics say the recent moves are tactical, aimed at retaining power that is sure to slip as the flood of cash from the country’s vast fossil fuel reserves, which generated unprecedented wealth during his tenure, slowly recedes. (Agencies)
By this view, Putin’s is impulsive and increasingly isolated, unchecked by opponents or even by formerly trusted advisers.
Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the pardon was not evidence of Putin’s seeking to improve his image abroad, but rather his satisfaction that Khodorkovsky’s pardon request was an admission of guilt. “He views the world leaders as pathetic weaklings who can be ignored,” she wrote in a commentary.
“What has happened with Khodorkovsky is the demonstration of the absolute power of one man in the Kremlin who enjoys his omnipotence and has found one more way to demonstrate it,” she continued. “He can punish and he can pardon if he feels like it.”
Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion and a vocal critic who fled Russia earlier this year, saying he feared imminent arrest, said the pardon was less about burnishing Russia’s image ahead of the Olympics than about avoiding challenges that could undermine Putin’s authority, including sanctions by the West in response to alleged human rights abuses in Russia.
The United States took one such step last year, adopting a law called the Magnitsky Act, which bars certain Russian citizens accused of abuses from travelling to the United States, and seeks to freeze their assets.
“That’s the thing about dictators,” Kasparov said. “At a certain point they stay in power too long, and it’s all about tactical moves to stay in power.”
He noted that Khodorkovsky’s business partner, Platon Lebedev, remained in prison as did scores of others on charges that critics have denounced as arbitrary or politically motivated.
Khodorkovsky’s pardon highlighted the capriciousness of justice in Russia, where those who defy the Kremlin can be entangled in charges and court trials, and then almost as mysteriously released.
Earlier this year, a court convicted the opposition blogger, Alexei A Navalny, of embezzlement and sentenced him to five years in prison after a trial that was denounced as a farce, only for an appeals court to order his release the next day, allowing him to run a strong though unsuccessful campaign for mayor of Moscow, a sequence of events that few doubt could have occurred without Putin’s consent.
Experts said Russia’s slowing growth was another factor in Putin’s recent decisions, prompting him to take steps to improve the investment climate to attract foreign capital, as well as to lift his own popularity in case the economy takes a dive. In part because of a slowing economy and rising prices, Putin’s approval rating stands at 61 percent, its lowest point since 2000, the first year of his presidency, according to the Levada Center, a polling agency here.
Chris Weafer, a senior partner at Macro-Advisory, a consulting firm based in Moscow, said the release of Khodorkovsky was a positive sign, but more would be needed to reassure skittish foreign investors.
“The reason investors are wary is not because of the arrest of Khodorkovsky 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s the corruption, the poor business climate, the perception that there is little respect for the rule of law.”
Sergei M Guriev, the former rector of the New Economics School in Moscow, said in a telephone interview that he, too, believed that the president’s recent decisions were dictated in part by economic challenges. “There is no external crisis and yet the Russian economy is growing only at 1 1/2 percent a year,” he said. “Oil prices are high and yet the Russian government is balancing the budget with difficulty. Not everything is going so well.”(PTI)


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