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Jewish World Review Oct. 3, 2000 / 4 Tishrei, 5761

Mort Zuckerman

Mort Zuckerman
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A great step backward -- RUSSIA has ended its love affair with the West. It is now reinventing itself, and the portents are disquieting. The Russian people, and the world, may have to wait for yet another generation of leaders before they can prosper in a truly democratic state.

All of us–and I include myself–who hoped that Russia could build a Western-style democracy and market economy underestimated the historic obduracies of Russian feudalism and Soviet bureaucracy. A decade was not enough time to adapt to ideas and institutions that had been maturing for hundreds of years in the West. The gap between being a liberal and being a thief disappeared. Russians came to believe that the best way to get ahead was through cronyism and corruption rather than hard work. The subsequent socioeconomic collapse was greater than ever known before in an advanced society.

Today there is a new president, Vladimir Putin. It is not at all clear if democracy is his ultimate goal. What is clear is that his authoritarian methods are focused on restoring a centralized Russian state whose power relies on fear, not persuasion or education. He presides over a group of criminal oligarchs, former KGB and military men, and old communist apparatchiks, most of whom would have been right at home in the higher echelons of the Soviet government. Intelligence agents are now part of the presidential directorate; special military counterintelligence departments have been restored. "You can't get anywhere without secret agents," Putin has said. Putin expresses pride in his own KGB background, without seeming to understand how the KGB made the Soviet Union a place of fear, even terror, for most of the past century.

Law enforcement today seems less a matter of law than of politics. Putin has centralized the appointment of judges at the national level. He has reduced their life terms to a defined number of years, increasing their dependency on the central government. Politically, he has altered the composition of the senior national legislative body, organizing the country into seven super-regions administered by presidential appointees with the power to remove local governments. Five of these supergovernors are secret police and military officials.

A publisher who criticizes policies can expect to be menaced by the legal and political apparatus of the state; a journalist can expect to be attacked, even killed, for just trying to do the normal job of reporting. Putin's minister of information, Mikhail Lesin, sees the major TV networks as no more than presidential critics and, consequently, those who control them have been targets of selective prosecution.

Police raided Media-Most, which owns Russia's only independent television network, and left behind packets containing illegal bullets. Since possession of these is a criminal offense, the police are suspected once again of planting evidence. The owner of another network has said that Putin threatened him with criminal prosecution and jail time if he would not transfer his media holdings to the state. The Russian Union of Journalists reports that government officials at every level are limiting their ability to report and comment by denying broadcast licenses and revoking certain tax breaks. The leading TV personality, Sergei Dorenko, has had his regular Saturday night program yanked off the air because his bosses fear critical remarks about the president will invite a punitive reaction. Lesin went so far as to guarantee that the owner of Media-Most would not be prosecuted if he sold his media interests–a clear indication that justice can be bought if it advances the administration's political interests. I have firsthand knowledge of Lesin's tactics. He threatened me directly in relation to a newspaper in which I am a financial partner, asserting he would shut it down if it did not cease its exposés of the financial shenanigans of the Yeltsin administration and the Yeltsin family. I protested his threat in the strongest terms, and we have continued our aggressive reporting, so far without state interference.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the 81-year-old Nobel Prize writer, has long favored a strong Russian state, but even he recently denounced the recentralizing of power. Putin simply does not yet understand that for Russia to flourish, Russians must acquire independence, not from the aristocracy or the landowners or business, but from the state.

Russia has long been dangerous for its military strength. It is now dangerous for its political weakness. This time the West can do little about it.

JWR contributor Mort Zuckerman is editor-in-chief and publisher of U.S. News and World Report. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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© 2000, Mortimer Zuckerman