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The Right Levers For Putin

By Jennifer Moll. Source: Open Democracy 14 March 2005

If, as Mary Dejevsky has asserted in The West gets Putin wrong, Vladimir Putin is the best that the West can hope for in the current Russian political climate, it is from this knowledge that the West must press for positive changes in Russia.

The system that Putin inherited would leave few to argue with Dejevsky's assertion that Putin is a weak president desperately trying to grab more control over an unruly periphery. His oft-repeated mantras for a 'dictatorship of the law' and establishing a 'vertical of power' are by now, well known in the West.

Instead of seeing Putin's weakness as a buffer against the West's desire for a strong and stable Russian partner, it only increases the West's need to actively monitor and engage Russia to improve the situation. As Dejevsky illustrates, Putin is weak both internally and externally. If Putin is to combat the three great Russian diseases, that Andrew Meier notes, of greed, corruption and bureaucracy, he will have to strengthen both the rule of law and accountability, especially in the regions. By doing so, Putin could establish the necessary 'levers of power' that Dejevsky calls for. As such, Putin's crack-down on political parties, the election of regional governors, media independence and the destruction of Yukos is not only ill-timed but ill-conceived and are likely to damage his position.

The 'levers' that Putin is currently pulling, specifically the limitations placed on media independence and executive influence over the judiciary, may work in the short-term but are very damaging over a protracted period. The West should not hesitate to speak out against reforms that both weaken Russia and take it in the wrong direction. Far from increasing his power or stabilising Russia, Putin's involvement in the recent Ukrainian elections and his 'persecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky' and a free market economy only compound his weaknesses.

Dejevsky calls for realistic help to establish security along porous borders and to encourage the development of local and national democracy. But far from creating security, meddling in Georgia and Moldova will only decrease it. The continuing problem of Chechnya, what one human rights analyst has called 'a spreading cancer on the edge of the Russian Federation', is also hindering Russian security.

With fewer parties in power, the populace will increasingly associate current problems with the Putin administration; over time it is also likely that they will become more distrustful of government in general. Furthermore, the lack of a durable multi-party system and fewer opposition parties gives Putin's United Russia increased access to administrative resources that can be used to disrupt the 'democratic rule of law'. As Putin's reforms continue to amass power for his regime and for United Russia, the lack of accountability has led to an increased number of abuses of power.

Similarly, instead of fostering democracy, Putin's reforms have removed democratic accountability one step further from the people. Increasing the minimum number of registered members of a political party from 10,000 to 50,000 with membership throughout the Federation's regions will undoubtedly curtail the development of local or regional political activism geared at specific interests. A lack of political activism not only impedes Russian democracy, but strengthens the hand of conservatives to unite those who have been pushed aside.

By moving the legislative and judicial branches, as well as the media and opposition, from being outside of the system to being an integral part of it, Putin has paradoxically decreased the possibility for real debate in Russia and has therefore increased the chance that Putin's regime could collapse. Dejevsky is correct in asserting that this is not the situation the West wants, but this should not mute the concerns of Russia's Western friends and partners. To the contrary, the West must begin to work with the Russian state, and not just an idealised president. Far from advocating 'further and faster reform', the West merely advocates that Russia should, in the words of one liberal Russian politician, 'realise its own Constitution.'

Multilateral organisations have been left with the task of pushing for positive reforms for too long. Recent moves by Bush, however half-hearted, are a positive signal that the West is willing to provide more practical advice and support. Instead of advocating more reforms, the West has turned to advocating a better quality of reforms, one that will benefit the Russian people, and undoubtedly, the current administration as well. The West must work to show Putin's government that stabilising a democratic rule of law through increased debate and dialogue will not only make for better Russian relations with the West, but will create a more stable Russia.

Jennifer Moll is the Russia Project Officer at the Foreign Policy centre

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