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Context (Moscow Times)
June 11-17, 2004
Poker Face
Two new books dig beneath the surface of Vladimir Putin the dictator -- or is it Vladimir Putin the democrat?

By William Flemming

Putin: Russia's Choice
By Richard Sakwa
307 Pages. $21.95

Putin's Progress
By Peter Truscott
Simon & Schuster
384 Pages. 17.99 Pounds

President Vladimir Putin is a man on a mission to democratize Russia -- at least that is the impression one gets from perusing his major public pronouncements since securing comfortable re-election in March. Three quotes should provide a flavor:

"The main objective [in domestic policy] is to strengthen democratic institutions." (From comments made on election night, March 14.)

"Russia's success and prosperity cannot and should not depend on just one person, one political party or one political force." (Putin's inauguration speech, May 7.) "I consider that the creation of a free society of free people in Russia is our most important task." (Putin's state of the nation address, May 26.)

However, the actions of the authorities over this same period tell a rather different story.

Key Kremlin-backed legislative initiatives of the past three months, such as the bill on public demonstrations, the bill on referenda and amendments to the Audit Chamber law, have done nothing to dispel ongoing concerns over the authoritarian leanings of the regime. The same goes for the convictions of arms control researcher Igor Sutyagin on highly dubious charges of spying and of Mikhail Trepashkin, a former FSB lieutenant colonel, on charges of "divulging state secrets." Human rights activists have decried Trepashkin's sentencing as retribution for his investigation into FSB involvement in the 1999 apartment bombings. Then there is the ongoing judicial onslaught against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Yukos -- if you are looking for a clear-cut case of selectively-applied justice, you need look no further. Whatever the Kremlin's real reasons for going after Khodorkovsky are, they bear little relation to the official charges leveled against him and his company.

Indeed, the events of recent months highlight one of the fundamental problems in understanding Russia: the discrepancy between public pronouncements and actions (often to the point of being diametrically opposed). The potential for muddying the waters is further amplified by the concentration of power in Putin's hands and the Kremlin's ability to manipulate all branches of government, as well as much of the media, from behind the scenes.

Two recent Putin biographies -- one by the British academic Richard Sakwa, the other by former British MEP and Russia-watcher Peter Truscott -- attempt to shed light on the "enigmatic" ex-KGB man who now holds sway over the Russian political system, and to explain the influences on his policy decisions. Sakwa's "Putin: Russia's Choice" is a thorough and well-researched study, though the author's judgment is frequently wide of the mark; Truscott's "Putin's Progress" is a readable but rather patchy account.

Truscott's manuscript would certainly have benefited from the attentions of a fact-checker: Dates are incorrectly recorded, individuals become conflated (such as Boris Yeltsin's two daughters, with one ending up married to the husband of the other), names get misspelled, and assets and their owners confused. The author calls Putin's choice of London as his first foreign destination following the 2000 election a decision "resonant with symbolism, with Putin consciously looking to the West, rather than the East." He neglects, however, to mention that the Russian president had visited Minsk and the vehemently anti-Western Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko immediately prior to flying to Britain -- thereby, in trademark style, sending mixed signals.

Coverage of Putin's first term is markedly uneven, with whole chapters devoted to the Kursk submarine tragedy (one of the best bits of the book, detailing a serious low point and formative episode in Putin's presidency) and the Dubrovka theater siege, while a whole host of other major domestic episodes and issues are crammed willy-nilly into a single chapter. Things are not helped by the erratic chronology in the second half of the book.

Sakwa's book is an in-depth, fully footnoted study that covers a lot of ground, with separate chapters devoted to the main themes of Putin's first term. The author draws on an impressively wide range of sources, including theoretical and comparative literature on political transition. However, while his research is solid, he unfortunately comes a cropper through his uncritical treatment of sources.

Sakwa's opening chapter immediately sets alarm bells ringing. Much of the available literature on Putin's early years and, indeed, right up to his appointment as acting president -- such as "First Person" (a volume of Putin interviews), Yeltsin's most recent volume of memoirs or the officially sanctioned biography by Oleg Blotsky -- is tendentious and needs to be handled with caution. Sakwa's uncritical regurgitation of lines like, "Putin by all accounts at an early age had a strong political awareness, enjoying political discussions in which 'he defended Russians and Russia,'" or, "Already [in sixth grade] in critical situations his peers looked to him for leadership," give the chapter an almost hagiographical glow.

The adage about a week being a long time in politics certainly holds true for Russia. And both books suffer to varying degrees from "premature aging" brought on by the rapid pace of events in the past 12 months -- though Sakwa, who submitted his final manuscript in May 2003, is worse affected than Truscott, who finished writing this January. Sakwa's cutoff point precludes mention of the Yukos affair, which loomed so large in the final year of Putin's first term and whose denouement in the coming weeks or months will set the tone for the remainder of his second term.

Beyond that, the political landscape looks much more depressingly monochrome now than it did 12 or even six months ago: the virtual monopolization of the State Duma by pro-Kremlin forces after the December elections, the consignment of the liberal Union of Right Forces and Yabloko to the political wilderness, and the cowing of big business through the judicial attacks on Yukos leave no room for doubt about the Kremlin's total control of the "commanding heights."

However, this does not really explain the uncritically pro-Putin slant that pervades Sakwa's book. The author demonstrates a shocking naivete in his readiness to accept Putin's words at face value:

"As with few other politicians, it was clear that 'what you saw, you got.' [Putin's] speeches and declarations had not been an elaborate screen to mask personal aggrandizement ... but a genuine attempt to modernize the country and to resolve the problems of the past not by employing the methods of the past."

In drawing their conclusions, Truscott -- despite his sketchy analysis -- comes through with a healthy dose of skepticism that is closer to the mark than Sakwa's naive optimism. Truscott advises those "waiting for Russia's president to introduce true democracy to the country" not to hold their breath. Sakwa, on the other hand, entertains the possibility that Putin may reveal himself to be a true democrat by losing an election and handing over power to an opposition leader, adding that "many of Putin's choices led in this direction."

It is quite a challenge to think of a single action undertaken by Putin in the past four years that could possibly be interpreted as leading in that direction. Indeed, there is no sign of Putin allowing any kind of transfer of power, except perhaps to a carefully vetted successor. And even that may be overly optimistic -- assuming, as it does, that he will not tinker with the constitution to allow himself to run for a third term.