Putin's Heavy Hand Could Halt Russia's Rise

The following opinion piece appeared in the June 16, 2004 issue of the International Herald Tribune. George Soros is the founder and chair of the Open Society Institute.

NEW YORK—President Vladimir Putin of Russia has thrown the gauntlet to civil society. In an address to the nation last month he made clear that the state reigns supreme. His speech drove home just how grim Russia's political landscape has become.

In the post-Soviet period, Russia was on the way to becoming an open society. Now Russians risk returning to an era they thought they had left behind.

When Putin came to power in 2000, putting Russia back together again was his first task. That drive to rebuild the country seemed a welcome antidote to the anarchy of the years of President Boris Yeltsin's rule. He was repairing a weak and fragmented state that could not collect taxes or implement the rule of law, and had no control over much of its territory.

The hallmarks of state capitalism are now in place. The state coffers are full, with Russia's reserves higher than ever. A flat tax of 13 percent has calmed jittery investors. The high price of oil has also played a role.

But Russia's liberalized economy has not meant democracy. Putin seems to be emulating Singapore, or Chile under Augusto Pinochet, with economy stability the top priority. Russia would be better served if he looked to the European Union's newest members, which have managed to balance economic and political liberalism with success.

That said, Putin has given Russians what they crave most—stability. Recent polls testify to his huge popularity, with support ratings of about 80 percent.

Putin's re-election in March only redoubled his mandate. He now controls more than two-thirds of the Duma (Parliament), which means he can change the Constitution at will. The remaining two liberal parties were shut out of Parliament when they failed to meet the 5 percent threshold.

Putin has overseen the virtual disappearance of independent television. The handful of remaining independent papers reach a tiny fraction of Russia's population of 146 million.

His state-of-the-nation speech raised fears that human rights activists could now become targets. This month the offices of the Kazan Human Rights Center were raided and equipment destroyed by masked men. Last week the Interior Ministry demanded the British Council's financial records, even questioning why the organization was in Russia.

Putin has done his best to remove Chechnya from the headlines, not by finding a solution to the conflict but by suppressing independent reporting. After Russian authorities protested, Anna Politkovskaya, an award-winning journalist who had written eloquently about Chechnya, even had her invitation to a panel discussion at the Frankfurt book fair canceled. The reality is that the war in Chechnya rages on. Human Rights Watch has reported that last year the number of disappearances was the highest since the second war began in 1999. Despite the destruction and loss of life, Putin remains intent on using force to subdue the region.

More than a year ago I decided to close my Russian foundation, confident that the state could now take on large-scale initiatives, chiefly in the fields of education and public health, that I had been funding for the past 15 years. I remained committed to the Russian people and have donated nearly $1 billion in Russia. I now welcomed the prospect of businessmen—like Mikhail Khodorkovsky—continuing the key work in civil society and on the Internet that my foundation had supported.

Khodorkovsky's arrest cast a pall over the business community. Anyone who considered donning the mantle of philanthropist has understood that nothing is possible without the state's seal of approval.

Putin must realize that Russia cannot be a healthy country if he strangles civil society. The state cannot thrive when divorced from society. The Russian bureaucracy, waiting for guidance from above, is showing signs of indecision. Putin's effort to modernize Russia cannot succeed unless critical thinking is protected. If he fails to reverse course, Putin will undermine what he wants most—a strong state. The economic development that he seeks to foster will escape him.

Copyright © 2004 by the International Herald Tribune. Reprinted with permission.

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