Call Putin’s bluff: save Russia

By Boris Berezovsky (THE TIMES, 26/08/07):

Putin and Putin’s Russia are being widely discussed in the West. Opinions have split: some say it’s better to be friends, others insist that a hardline approach is more fitting.

Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia still plays a key role in world politics. Discord between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the West is seen everywhere: energy resources and their transport, military security, Kosovo, eastern Europe, Ukraine, the Caucasus, central Asia, the Middle East . . . there is hardly an area left where the interests of Putin’s Russia coincide with those of the West.

The last myth, of co-operation in the fight against international terrorism, was put to rest on November 1, 2006, when London became the target of a radioactive attack using polonium-210, with the Kremlin front and centre behind that assault.

Putin’s regime will inevitably collapse. The USSR collapsed because the centralised political system and the planned economy were uncompetitive. By taking Russia back to the top-down power structure, Putin dooms it to suffer the same consequences as the Soviet Union. However, while the Soviet break-up meant liberation for the people of Ukraine, the Baltic states, the Caucasus, central Asia and others, breaking up Russia would mean a collapse of a unique civilisation that is integral to global civilisation. Will Putin’s regime collapse as a result of Russia failing, or will there be internal powers capable of defeating the regime and stopping the break-up? There is no third option.

Putin’s regime is authoritarian. Under the current system, free elections are impossible. Only pressure on the Kremlin will make it possible to re-establish a constitutional form of government. John Locke, the English philosopher, said: “If a government violates the law, overthrowing it is not just a right, but an obligation of responsible members of society.” I am calling for deliberate pressure aimed at reinstating a form of government that would correspond to the letter and the spirit of the Russian federation constitution which states that “Man, his rights and freedoms are the supreme value. The recognition, observance and protection of the rights and freedoms of man and citizen shall be the obligation of the state.” By abrogating citizens’ rights and freedoms, Putin’s regime has made itself unlawful. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights — to which Russia is a signatory — states that “it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law”. Everyone fears the bloodiness of revolutions. However, the bloodless revolutions of the late 20th and early 21st century in eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union teach us a different lesson.

First, the West should acknowledge that Putin’s government is unconstitutional. Events in Russia and the murder of Alexander Litvinenko justify this. Next, deliberate pressure on the institutions of power. This has many forms, including rebellion as the final means. There is one fundamental limitation: such pressure must minimise the provoking of violent action by the state that will cause victims. Ukrainian and Georgian examples show that it can be achieved. Only the people can be the legitimate force to depose an illegitimate government, because democracy is the basis of Russia’s constitutional policy.

Over the past 20 years or so, our people have demonstrated great “flexibility” in their political leanings. Our people trust not the individual, but the position. Instead of giving weight to Putin’s high popularity ratings, a simple question must be asked: who will voluntarily risk their lives to come out on the streets to defend Putin? My answer is — a lot fewer people than those who will voluntarily risk their lives to come out on the streets against him.

Putin’s problem is that until now the corrupt pro-Kremlin elite has been his real source of support. He had a deal with them: they give him power, the “love” of the people and personal wellbeing and, in exchange, he legalises their business and capital in Russia and in the West. But this elite keeps its capital in western, not Russian, banks, so if anything happens it won’t be so easy for Putin to take it from them.

When the West realised that the Kremlin was behind the Litvinenko murder, Putin lost the ability to guarantee protection of this elite’s interests in the West. What’s more, closeness to Putin has become dangerous for them.

Now the question of a third presidential term. Since insecurity is the essence of Putin’s mentality, deceit comes naturally to him. The Kremlin cooked up a story about his third term. The idea behind the deceit is simple: a puppet successor, a constitutional assembly, an amendment to the constitution (presidential authority is set at two seven-year terms), then the successor asks to resign and Putin returns. This plan may have been viable before the Livinenko murder. It won’t work now. The elite do not want Putin to top a chain of command suspected of crimes in its own country and of international terrorism; and any successor covering up Putin’s government’s crimes will himself become an accomplice. And as an accomplice he won’t be able to stay long enough for Putin to return — so Putin can’t hand power to anyone, not even a puppet.

It’s clear that Russia would still be trudging along in the Communist-KGB USSR that Putin loves so much were it not for the West and its decisive leaders, above all Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. There is nothing shameful in using the levers that the West has in order to put Russia back on the path of democratic reform.

A necessary condition for success is for the West to unify its position. Putin’s Russia depends on the West to an incomparably greater extent than did the Soviet Union. All Russian elites are attached to the West by their umbilical cords. The West should direct its efforts at countering those at the source of support for Putin’s regime — the corrupt elite.

The first step should be a comprehensive audit of this elite’s bank accounts, starting with those closest to the Kremlin. Western leaders have all the tools necessary for conducting this audit, which include the agreement on fighting high-level corruption signed in 2006 by the G8 leaders during the summit in St Petersburg. I am certain most of them won’t pass such an audit.

By itself, Russia’s monopoly over Eurasia’s energy resources is not enough as an instrument of political pressure, because it also needs a transport network to deliver them to the consumer.

Old Europe’s lack of understanding of the intense reaction of Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia and other countries toward Putin’s aggressive actions stems from the deep intellectual degradation of the West’s political elites — beginning with their leader, the United States. This was behind western procrastination in integrating Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia into Europe and pushing away Belarus. The West must offer support to those countries on the front lines of resisting the creeping aggression of Putin’s Russia.

Its non-participation in the process of democratic reforms initiated by Boris Yeltsin — and its open encouragement of Putin’s criminal regime — took the world back to the past.

Nuclear blackmail by Iran, the disastrous war in Iraq, the crisis in Palestine and the Middle East in general are a direct consequence of the West miscalculating Russia’s role in the modern world. Bringing Russia back to the democratic community is certainly realistic — what’s more, it is the main duty of all responsible western politicians.