#5 - JRL 7239
Wall Street Journal
June 25, 2003
By THERESE RAPHAEL
Pageantry for Putin; What About Hard Talk?
Millions of tourists from all over the world visit places like St. Paul's Cathedral, the Tower of London or the Scottish capital of Edinburgh each summer. Not many are met at Heathrow airport by Prince Charles and then greeted by the Queen, her husband Prince Philip and Prime Minister Tony Blair at Horseguard Parade before mounted cavalry with plumed helmets and grenadier guards in their scarlet.
For that kind of welcome, it helps to be Vladimir Putin.
While Russian leaders have traveled to Britain for political meetings, yesterday marked the start of the first official state visit of a Russian leader since Czar Alexander II stayed with Queen Victoria in 1874 (the czar's daughter was engaged to Victoria's son). This is occasion enough for the full-on display of monarchic regalia. But there is the additional impetus of British-Russian relations, which hit a rocky patch over Iraq but which both leaders are keen to revive for geopolitical and commercial reasons.
Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin could be said to have a lot in common. Both are referred to as presidents of their respective countries, though only one of them holds that title. Both men pretty much control their parliaments. Neither faces much of an opposition, except occasionally within his own government. Both are frequently characterized as reformers -- but also interventionists and control-freaks.
That comparison is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, of course. For all the progress that has been made in Russia over the past decade, nobody could compare Mr. Putin's Russia to British democracy. Why this is so is worth bearing in mind as the Russian leader is once again feted by a Western power eager to show friendship, forge commercial and political ties and encourage Russia down the path to genuine democracy.
In today's Russia there is less a sense of lurching from crisis to crisis than there was during the Yeltsin reign. There is more professionalism in government and some achievements on the economic policy front -- including a more stable ruble, improvements in the field of corporate governance and (Downing Street, please take note,) the introduction two years ago of a 13% flat tax on personal income, which has brought two years of increased tax revenues to the treasury.
None of these achievements however have caused the floodgates of foreign investment to swing wide open. This is mainly because foreign strategic investors (as opposed to more flexible portfolio investors) are very aware of what Russia still lacks -- a reliable rule of law, transparent government, effective law-enforcement and a friendly tax and regulatory environment. Then there is the niggling sense that for all the vaunted stability and the plaudits Mr. Putin receives from Western leaders, Russian democracy has actually suffered erosion under this president.
The signs of a fettered democracy are easy to spot: self-censorship in the media, the absence of independent and liberal television outlets, weak opposition parties, an unreformed military, increasingly powerful security services and, not least, a festering, brutal civil crackdown in a constituent republic that shows no sign of ending. But worse than all of these problems is the Kremlin's tendency to deny them and, when it does admit that a problem exists (as with the need for military reform) show a distressing inability to address it.
On Monday, presidential envoy to Russia's southern districts Viktor Kazantsev told delegates of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development not to worry about Chechnya. "The Chechen war is as good as over -- it's rather virtual than actual," he said. But the weekly tally of casualties and the daily misery of Chechen life testifies otherwise. Prime Minister Blair has promised Parliament he'll broach the subject of Chechnya during his meeting with the Russian President. But he quickly added the de rigueur reference to fighting terrorism that is code for soft-pedaling the Chechnya issue, on which President Putin is rightly sensitive.
Another sign of denial is Mr. Putin's continued tolerance of press czar Mikhail Lesin, the personification of the state's creeping infringement on press freedoms. British journalists may complain about New Labour spin-doctors; they should be happy they don't have Mr. Lesin to contend with.
Mr. Lesin rose to prominence as Russia's first advertising mogul. The company he founded, Video International, is a de facto monopolist in the Russian media ad market. Mr. Lesin was key to President Yeltsin's 1996 comeback and has been Mr. Putin's enforcer on media affairs -- which mostly consists of issuing veiled warnings to dissenting journalists.
The big news on the eve of Mr. Putin's visit to Britain was the closing of the last remaining independent, liberal television network, TVS, whose financial troubles gave the government its excuse. The Kremlin, through Mr. Lesin, argues that it has no issue with a free and vibrant media so long as journalists behave responsibly. Unfortunately, the Kremlin's definition of irresponsible journalism is pretty wide-ranging.
For example, amendments to the laws on mass media passed by the Duma this month (and suggested by Mr. Putin) set out the penalties that can be imposed for things like "improper" coverage of electoral contests. The intended effect is clear. The law prohibits "electioneering" that is not paid for by a party or candidate with official campaign funds. "Electioneering" is defined to include such things as reporting on a candidate's non-professional activities.
These are not the kinds of prickly issues that are likely to take up much time when Mr. Putin meets with British officials over the next few days. Indeed, the focus is very much on patching up differences over Iraq and working on common interests.
Asked by the BBC just what he had in mind when he publicly taunted Prime Minister Tony Blair in Russia over the lack of WMD finds in Iraq, President Putin had a soothing answer ready. "We only showed that there was a debate, that there was a disagreement of opinions on several issues. But...we actually agreed on the main parameters for a possible future resolution on Iraq. This was an extremely important event...the positions that we agreed upon during the Prime Minister's visit to Moscow were made the basis of the Security Council resolution on Iraq, which returned a significant amount of these problems to the U.N. platform."
The ceremony and smooth talk also help to cover up the policy differences separating Russia from Britain and the U.S. -- from Iraqi reconstruction (Russia may be willing to forgive some Iraqi debt, but it wants contracts, contracts, contracts) to the Middle East (Yasser Arafat should be brought back to the table) to Iran (the mullahs are not seeking to develop nuclear weapons).
This is all fine up to a point. Avoiding such prickly subjects might make for a more pleasant state visit. But Russia will never be a reliable political, or business partner until it becomes a stronger democracy.
Write to Therese Raphael at firstname.lastname@example.org