No one in Russia needs a presidential election to tell them Vladimir Putin is in charge. The Russian president fired his entire cabinet on Feb. 24, including the country's prime minister, just three weeks before a nationwide poll on March 14, the country's fourth presidential vote since the downfall of the Soviet Union and Mr. Putin's second run at office.
With Mr. Putin facing only faint opposition, sacking the government became a way to jolt public attention back to the Kremlin, thereby elevating voter turnout. Mr. Putin promised to replace the cabinet even before the election, so assured is the president of victory. As a further surprise, he named Mikhail Fradkov, a career bureaucrat, prime minister on March 2. Assembling a new team well ahead of balloting sends an unmistakable message to voters: Under Mr. Putin, elections are a thing of the past.
"I think Putin may have overplayed his hand. He is making it so obvious that nobody has any chance of winning that he has turned these elections into a farce," said longtime Russia analyst and former Reagan aide Larry Uzzell. "What we are seeing is the slow but steady consolidation of power into the hands of one man."
Russia may have a president, a prime minister, a popularly elected legislature, a constitution, and a rising standard of living. Commonly held perceptions of what democracy should look like, however, do not apply.
Since taking office in 2001 from Russia's first democratically elected head of state, Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Putin has moved to undermine the pillars of a free state rather than reinforce them. International monitors say his government manipulated controversial presidential elections in Chechnya, along with nationwide parliamentary elections last year. At the same time, the government forced closure of Moscow's last major non-state-run television network. The government also moved to break up and take over Russia's most successful private oil conglomerate, YUKOS, arresting and jailing its chief executive officer, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, on dubious charges, and seizing stock shares.
Mr. Putin has a name for his style: "managed democracy." Western observers, however, say Russia under the former KGB agent has fallen well below the threshold of democracy. "I would call Russia an electoral autocratic regime," Stanford University political science professor Larry Diamond said recently. Mr. Uzzell said he would describe Russia's present form of government as "a stable kleptocracy."
Mr. Uzzell, who heads International Religious Freedom Watch and has lived for the last decade in Moscow, said, "One can no longer think of Russia as in transition. It's very stable. And neither politically, economically, nor morally does it measure up to G-8 standards," a reference to the world's wealthiest Group of 8 democratic-capitalist nations.
Despite economic and political advances since the fall of communism, one-fourth of Russians live in poverty. Government workers-including doctors, teachers, and military personnel-often go unpaid. War in Chechnya continues, with increasing documentation of widespread military abuses. As the YUKOS scandal suggests, Mr. Putin has made more headlines renationalizing private enterprise than privatizing the country's vast government holdings. Meanwhile, Mr. Putin's popularity rating holds steady at 80 percent.
"Putin has the soul of a KGB officer," said Mr. Uzzell. "He is very skillful at manipulating public perceptions while increasing control." Mr. Putin has gradually eliminated Yeltsin cronies from senior government positions, replacing them with KGB colleagues from his own political base in St. Petersburg. These are popularly known as "Chekists," a reference to security agents preceding the KGB; or Siloviki, men of force.
"While wrapping themselves in the flag and patriotic rhetoric, they do not hesitate to misuse law enforcement and the courts to achieve their goals," notes Ariel Cohen, a Russian and Eurasian research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Their tactics are one reason Mr. Putin's political opponents are in disarray. The electoral commission has approved six candidates to stand against Mr. Putin, but none is expected to garner more than 15 percent of the vote.
After Mr. Putin's United Russia party swept December parliamentary elections, opposition leaders stepped aside and handed their candidacies to party novices. Prominent figures like ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who participated in the last three elections, will sit out, banking on Mr. Putin to retain the two-term limit for presidents, which would make this his final four-year term. Mr. Zhirinovsky put up his bodyguard, Oleg Malyshkin, to run in his place.
Other candidates found themselves caught in pulp-fiction sagas of their own, or perhaps the government's, making. Ivan Rybkin, speaker of parliament in the Yeltsin years, disappeared for five days in February. When he surfaced in London, the Liberal Russia party candidate claimed he was kidnapped, drugged, and held in Ukraine. He promised to campaign from relative safety in London but is unlikely to get more than 1 percent of the vote.
Factionalism among even closely aligned parties is legendary. "Part of the problem is that the experience of living in a totalitarian society has crippled the political skills of the dissidents," according to Mr. Uzzell. Few have learned the art of negotiation and compromise, preferring pure power politics.
One prominent example is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author whose influential Gulag Archipelago earned him a hero's following in the West and a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. Mr. Solzhenitsyn returned home in 1994. Ever since, his writings have fallen out of vogue. Recent works sell fewer than 5,000 copies in Russia. Public statements, now rare, are met with ridicule. "They seem aimed to make people uncomfortable more than win them to any democratic cause," said Mr. Uzzell.
Religious dissidents, once formidable human-rights activists, now practice staying out of politics. Russians don't run into problems speaking about their faith these days, according to Mr. Uzzell, "unless you take that faith into the public square." So otherwise outspoken church leaders are silent on broader encroachments to liberty. They know "religious freedom has reached an equilibrium," said Mr. Uzzell. "There won't be any more of it, but there won't be any less, either."
That leaves lobbying for real liberalization to outsiders; namely, the United States. Yet the Bush doctrine on Russia has mostly rested on an adage. "I looked the man in the eye," the president said in June 2001 after his first meeting with Mr. Putin. "I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.... I was able to get a sense of his soul.... He's an honest, straightforward man who loves his country. He loves his family. We share a lot of values."
While Mr. Putin has cracked down on civil institutions and concentrated power in the Kremlin, Bush-Putin relations have coalesced around personal chemistry-fireside chats at the Crawford ranch and White Night boat tours of St. Petersburg.
At the same time, the payoff for good relations-Kremlin cooperation in the war on terror, nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, and support in the Middle East-may yield less than first appeared. Iraqi Oil Ministry documents suggest Russian officials may have been heavily involved in lucrative black-market deals to enrich Saddam Hussein. Russian firms have sold billions of dollars in weapons to the former Iraqi regime and other rogue nations. And just when accountability is needed most, Kremlin procedures are becoming more inscrutable, thanks to media crackdowns and near one-party rule.
Prominent conservatives and Russophiles increasingly want Mr. Bush to get tough once Mr. Putin becomes a lame-duck president. They argue that Russia is not a rightful member of G-8 summits and should be booted. Overseas financing of oil and gas projects should depend on proper resolution of the YUKOS scandal. U.S. foreign aid to Russian government agencies should drop, while support for nongovernmental agencies, particularly those that support democracy, should rise.
Mr. Putin "is obviously somebody we should do business with, but he is also somebody who is responsible for vicious human-rights abuses in Chechnya and for presiding over a police state," said Mr. Uzzell. If the Russian president is a lock in the election, Mr. Uzzell suggested, "we should be more of a truth teller" about him.