The Magazine

The Case for Putin

Don't write off Russia's president.

Dec 22, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 15 • By LEWIS E. LEHRMAN
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AFTER THE LATE OCTOBER arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oil-industry billionaire indicted for fraud and tax evasion, a striking consensus emerged among American commentators: President Vladimir Putin was moving Russia toward dictatorship. U.S. intellectuals and pundits, liberal and conservative alike, responded with an apologia of Khodorkovsky and a parallel and pervasive assault on Putin.

But there is another possible interpretation of the controversial arrest: that Putin acted not against democracy but against corruption; that he played the part of a prudent constitutional chief executive in enforcing the laws of the Russian Federation; and that the Russian people sense this, which is one reason they gave Putin's party and its allied parties a landslide victory in the Duma elections held on December 7.

If this latter view is correct--if Khodorkovsky actually brought about his own downfall, through pride, ambition, and the criminal misdeeds recounted in the 40,000-page indictment--the eventual trial should vindicate Putin in the eyes of reasonable people. In a second term, Putin could emerge as a strong leader of a liberal democracy.

Whether such predictions are justified, only time will tell. Putin, to be sure, may be criticized on a number of important counts. But there are also positive trends in Russia that the new pessimistic consensus underrates. And there are good reasons for skepticism about some of the defenses that have been made of Khodorkovsky. Both aspects deserve more attention than the media have given them.

To dispose of the latter first, when the apologias for Khodorkovsky and his company, Yukos, are thoroughly examined, it is a safe bet that some will be found to have been unduly influenced, directly or indirectly, by the company and its chief. But more important than the motives of some of the apologists, many of their arguments hold up poorly on examination.

Remarkably, none of Putin's critics, as far as I know, has asserted Khodorkovsky's innocence (though his lawyers have). Instead, many claim that Putin's government is engaging in "selective justice." The implication is that no criminal law should be enforced against any lawbreaker unless it is enforced against every lawbreaker. But even in mature democracies, the scarcity of litigation resources and unevenness of evidence make justice necessarily selective. American prosecutors and the American public understand perfectly well that our own financial scandals lead to the indictment, much less conviction, of only a fraction of actual offenders. As for President Putin's terse remark that Russians should be equal under the law, from the biggest billionaire to the lowliest beggar, it expresses a kind of common sense about the law that Americans naturally apply in the Enron case.

The allegations of anti-Semitism directed at President Putin are similarly flimsy. With his sensible relationship with Israel and evenhanded statements about Russia's own minorities ("bandits" excepted), Putin has been generally sympathetic to the Jewish community. And the allegations that Putin's conduct in the Khodorkovsky case demonstrates a sustained campaign to shut down public debate is a canard, as even a casual reading of the vigorous press and web exchanges in Moscow will show. A New York Times editorial of December 8 remarked: "Today there are 23 parties and lots of furious campaigning. Despite the Kremlin's control over national television, newspapers and websites provide lively commentary and criticism."

The politics of the Khodorkovsky case are, of course, significant. It has been reported recently in Moscow that some oligarchs (including Khodorkovsky) made a transparent attempt to buy a minority of deputies in the Duma sufficient to block, among other things, a more equitable system of taxation, fairer to the Russian people and less favorable to the extractive industries (dominated by the oligarchs). Deputies from several parties (otherwise opposed to one another) were targeted. This particular maneuver will not likely be attempted again. Lobbying, of course, has its place in any democracy, but deputies for hire do not. It is now likely that Russia's tax system will become more equitable: The very rich will pay a fairer share, manufacturing will be encouraged, the average citizen will benefit, and the Promethean greed of the Yeltsin era will be channeled into the market, with benefits for all.