Saturday, July 15, 2006

Russia's Party

Since Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, Russia has in many ways been a remarkable success. Thanks largely to high oil prices, its economy has grown by an average of 6.5% a year. Living standards have improved and a sizeable middle class has emerged. The stockmarket has boomed. Russia is running a huge current-account surplus, it is paying off the last of its debt and the ruble has just been made fully convertible. At the summit Russia also hopes to surmount the last hurdles to its joining the World Trade Organization.

Russians are grateful for these things. They like the stability that Mr Putin has brought in place of the chaos under his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. They welcome their country's bounceback from the dark days of August 1998, when it defaulted and devalued. They are proud that, as the summit demonstrates, Russia once more counts for something in the world. No wonder Mr Putin has a popularity rating in the 70% range—an achievement that none of his guests can match, notably President Bush and Prime Minister Blair.

In Mr Putin's early years optimists hoped that stability and prosperity would not come at the expense of liberty and democracy. Before blogging came into existence, a lone op-ed writer for a school newspaper shared in this sentiment (though looking into his eyes, through the television to get a glimpse of his soul, did not change my lack of trust). Western leaders gave him the benefit of their doubts over such matters as the war in Chechnya or curbs on the media. But as The Economist notes in its feature Leader acticle, Russia is moving in the wrong direction. Greater state control of the economy, especially in the energy industry, has bred corruption and inefficiency. Any serious political opposition has been crushed. The broadcast media have been shut down or taken over by the government and its allies. Regional governors have been squashed—one of the last elected governors was arrested recently—and parliament has been emasculated, continuing the Kremlin's drive not merely to centralise, but to monopolise, political power.

There is much debate over when Mr. Putin started to go wrong, the truth is that there was no particular moment when Mr. Putin started to go wrong. Mr. Putin was determined from the outset to control the television channels and to stamp out political opposition. This reflects Putin's background as a KGB officer, not any domestic or international incedent. To him, restoring order, staying in charge and reviving Russia's influence has what matter—not democracy and human rights.

What to say to Putin, then at the G8 meeting or for that matter any time in the future?The short answer is, not a lot. It is no longer the 1990s when an economically enfeebled Russia needed help from abroad. With the Kremlin firmly in control, Russia will almost certainly change only from within, if at all.

There is agreement with The Economist’s point, that is not to say that the West has no influence. Mr. Putin, like other Russian leaders before him, is sensitive to outside criticism. Western leaders should speak out against Mr. Putin's moves away from democracy, against his policy in Chechnya, or against Russian use of energy to bully its neighbours (many west European countries have been too timid in their criticism, but considering that the West conducts similar tatics with different commodities can such criticism be taken seriously?). Western countries should continue to help NGOs and others who are trying to establish a civil society that may, provide an alternative to the dead weight of the Kremlin. As the next presidential election of March 2008 nears, they should insist that any move to amend the constitution so that Mr Putin can run again is unacceptable—and would result in Russia's expulsion from the G8 (this is a good idea, but one in which will ring hallow in the ears of the world and privately be laughed at in Kremlin hallways). Finally, the West should press for free and fair elections, even if the Kremlin's chosen candidate will win.

Of course, there are things the West should not do, as well. Russia's eventual membership of the G8 should not be throw it out since it would only push Russia farther out of the West's orbit. Americans and Europeans are right to assist countries in Russia's “sphere of influence. However, for Ukraine or Georgia, to join NATO before each were ready would serve no good purpose. Most importantly, Western leaders should avoid giving the impression that what they object to is a strong and rich Russia. All this leads to the course of action currently being pursused with other “tricky” countries democratic or not, an engagement policy that is not stern nor loose, but rather wary.

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