Vladimir Putin is not just a power-hungry autocrat, he is also the world’s most despicable thief.
By PAUL MONK
President Vladimir Putin is manoeuvring to have himself installed as ruler for life in Russia.
He is doing so as part of a set of sweeping constitutional changes. These warrant close attention, not only for the sake of understanding Russia in the 2020s, but to better grasp the mechanics and tactics of other political figures around the world who are entrenching authoritarian regimes.
What Xi Jinping has done in China, what Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done in Turkey, what Rodrigo Duterte has done in The Philippines and what Nicolas Maduro has done in Venezuela all have a good deal in common.
The entire Russian cabinet resigned this week, pending major constitutional reforms. As Dmitry Medvedev, the outgoing Prime Minister and long-time Putin crony, put it on Russian state television, with the President sitting next to him: “These changes, when they are adopted, will introduce substantial changes not only to an entire range of articles of the constitution but also to the entire balance of power, the power of the executive, the power of the legislature, the power of the judiciary.”
They also will impinge on several other matters with direct relevance to Putin’s mode of governance since he came to power under the auspices of the corrupt Boris Yeltsin in 1999. They will entrench Russian sovereignty against any claims of international law. They will look to amend the constitutional limit of two consecutive terms for the Russian presidency. And they will strengthen laws against exiles who have held foreign citizenship or even foreign residency permits from becoming presidential candidates in future elections.
Why is Putin taking these measures now? His presidential term is not due to expire until 2024.
He is seeking, stepwise, to consolidate a regime he has dominated for 20 years by all manner of political chicanery and coercion.
He is seeking to lock in a political framework to guarantee he will not be prosecuted, after he steps down, for the vast scale of embezzlement and extortion in which he and his circle have engaged.
He is seeking to thwart political moves by wealthy and powerful Russian exiles, as well as domestic dissidents, to check his power or hold him to account.
There is already a rich expert literature on the Putin regime. It is far more conducive to a sound understanding of the regime than what you will find on social media. In The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, Masha Gessen explored the rise of the Putin regime through the lives of four Russians who were born in the last years of the Soviet regime and entered the 1990s very young, with soaring personal and social expectations. Those expectations were crushed as a new mafia state took a ruthless stranglehold on the country, with Putin at the helm. This is the issue at the heart of the matter and those troubled — rightly — by the faltering of democratic politics in the West in the past decade or so would do well to ponder the far more dire decay of politics in the new authoritarian regimes.
Putin’s Russia is a good place to start, if only because Russia is, broadly speaking, “Western” in terms of language, religion and long geopolitical involvement with the other states of the European world. If there is reason for concern about new right movements or regressive leftist ones in the European heartland right now, look to Moscow to see the strategic sponsor and troublemaker behind their efflorescence.
The most striking themes are kleptocracy camouflaged behind romantic nationalism. Putin is a former KGB officer and extols Stalin and the Soviet past. But he is not a communist. His ideological camouflage is an opportunistic combination of Russian chauvinism, old Slavophilic or Russian Orthodox mysticism, anti-liberal “Eurasianism” and neo-authoritarian decisionism. But the practice is one of extraordinary and systematic theft and extortion. Putin and his cronies have siphoned off vast sums of money from the Russia they claim to champion and have stashed it in foreign — often Western — banks and havens.
As Anders Aslund, at the Atlantic Council in Washington, wrote last year in Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy: “Vladimir Putin has designed the current Russian system with great skill. As the dominant decision-maker, he has built a system to his liking: an authoritarian kleptocracy.”
Looting without parallel
What we are witnessing now is Putin’s next deft move to buttress that kleptocracy. Karen Dawisha was the forensic analyst of this grand larceny. She tabled abundant financial evidence of “looting without parallel” by “an organised crime gang” of an abhorrent nature. It is estimated that the President and his inner circle have stolen enough money that Putin himself might well be the wealthiest robber baron on the planet. And unlike the titans of Silicon Valley or Wall Street, he has created nothing in exchange.
Oil and gas have been the lifeblood of the Russian economy since the turn of the 20th century, and as Martin Sixsmith pointed out some years ago in Putin’s Oil: The Yukos Affair and the Struggle for Russia, it was through muscling in on hydrocarbons at the expense of independent oligarchs that Putin laid the foundation of his vast ill-gotten gains. Along the way he has had oligarchical enemies, political rivals, intelligence defectors and investigative journalists imprisoned, exiled, harassed and murdered.
Boris Berezovsky, Sergei Magnitsky, Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal are only a handful of Putin’s victims. The US and Australia have passed Magnitsky acts to impose sanctions on those who conspire under the cover of state laws to suppress and persecute those like tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who labour to expose kleptocratic corruption. The act was legislated in the US in 2012. The Putin regime, far from repenting, has doubled down on political warfare. It is a malign regime, antagonistic to the West and towards liberal democracy.
As Australian international security specialist Ross Babbage points out in a two-volume study for the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments published last year, Russia, like China, has been engaged for many years in information warfare against liberal democracies with strategic intent. We have only belatedly started to recognise this for what it is and to push back. Russian meddling in the US presidential election in 2016 was a wake-up call. The chief driver behind the move to impeach US President Donald Trump is this concern about Russia. Just this week Putin has spoken out against the impeachment proceedings.
A more reliable assessment of the situation is Neal Katyal’s Impeach: The Case Against Donald Trump. Katyal, a professor of law at Georgetown University and a prominent lawyer in his own right, appeared in the television drama House of Cards playing himself. House of Cards, of course, was a sinister tale of political intrigue and anti-democratic conspiracy in London and Washington. But if you want to look right into the viper’s nest of such intrigue and ruthless conspiracy, look no further than Putin’s Russia. Putin is Machiavelli’s Prince writ large.
Paul Monk is the author of 10 books, of which the most recent is Dictators and Dangerous Ideas: Uncensored Reflections in an Era of Turmoil (Echo Books, 2018). www.paulmonk.com.au