Putin's critics would do well to revisit the past

There are striking parallels between the Gorbachev years and the tenure of Putin
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Twenty years ago today, the world media led their bulletins with the news that Mikhail Gorbachev, the youngest member of the Soviet Communist Party's ruling Politburo, had become general secretary and de facto leader of the communist bloc. Now, almost every concept in that sentence is obsolete. The Soviet Communist Party is no more, and the Communist Party of Russia is a very different creature from the monolith that preceded it. There is no ruling Politburo; there is no Soviet Union; there is no communist bloc.

Twenty years ago today, the world media led their bulletins with the news that Mikhail Gorbachev, the youngest member of the Soviet Communist Party's ruling Politburo, had become general secretary and de facto leader of the communist bloc. Now, almost every concept in that sentence is obsolete. The Soviet Communist Party is no more, and the Communist Party of Russia is a very different creature from the monolith that preceded it. There is no ruling Politburo; there is no Soviet Union; there is no communist bloc.

Mikhail Gorbachev has outlived them all. He enjoys an honourable retirement as a globe-trotting elder statesman. But can it really be only 20 years ago that he took over the Kremlin? It seems like another age - and, of course, it is. Even the cautious reforms instituted by Gorbachev rapidly did for the system.

Perestroika and glasnost - restructuring and openness - became the buzzwords of his rule and ate away its foundations. Grudgingly, Gorbachev let the East European satellites go. When he tried to rescue his own country's economy by loosening the ties that bound the 15 Soviet republics, the backlash in the party and industrial hierarchy precipitated his downfall along with theirs.

For Russia, the capricious and colourful reign of Boris Yeltsin followed, with its free-booting chaos, and his mantle passed to Vladimir Putin, the solemn former KGB officer trying to impose his version of order on his unruly homeland.

And while we have indeed long since entered a different age - so long, in fact, that some Russians are already feeling nostalgic for the years of Gorbachev and Yeltsin - there is good reason to revisit that past one more time. For there are striking parallels between the Gorbachev years and the tenure of Putin which should serve as warnings to those tempted to embrace easy conclusions.

A consensus has grown up according to which Putin is a dictator in the making, an authoritarian by nature seeking to rule Russia like a latter-day tsar. The evidence is well-known: Mr Putin engineered the closure of national television channels that took an independent political line, and has initiated a clampdown on the media. He is accused of authorising the persecution of Russia's biggest oil tycoon, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and forcing the bankruptcy of his company, Yukos. He is blamed for reigniting the war in Chechnya to consolidate his authority and ordering - or turning a blind eye to - the Russian army's barbaric methods.

He stands accused of manipulating elections to secure a compliant Duma and crush all opposition to his own re-election to the presidency. Most recently he has been taken to task for replacing the direct elections of regional governors with a process of Kremlin nomination followed by local confirmation. He is doing all this, it is said, to bolster his own personal political authority.

In fact, many of the same charges were levelled against Gorbachev as his power ebbed away. This tends to be forgotten now, because Gorbachev has gone down in history, quite rightly, as a reformer who humanely declined to use armed force to keep intact the doomed empire he had inherited. In the last years of his rule, however, the recriminations were bitter. The newly liberated media accused him of authorising a return to tough censorship. Liberal members of the Soviet and Russian parliaments accused him of trying to institute a personal dictatorship. Though its use was timid compared with the way the Hungarian uprising and Prague Spring were crushed, force was used against demonstrators in Georgia and Lithuania. New-style politicians and entrepreneurs found many obstacles in their way; some lost their lives.

A great deal of what Gorbachev threatened in official pronouncements, however, never actually came about. Sometimes this was because he simply lacked the power: the levers of Soviet central planning were seizing up. Sometimes this was because his threats were no more than ploys, designed to block conservative opposition to his reforms.

Much the same is true of Putin. Much of what he says and does can be seen as the actions of a man searching for levers of power that will work - not to establish a dictatorship, but to have in place a national authority that functions as normal governments do. The Kremlin's failure - until this week - to capture or kill Chechen rebel leaders was perceived as weakness, especially after the Beslan school siege. The scalp of Aslan Maskhadov will provide a temporary boost.

Much else can be seen as an effort not to block opposition: for Putin as for Gorbachev, the bigger threat to his power comes not from out-and-out reformers, who constitute a small minority, but from die-hard conservatives. Opposition in the Duma consists not of reformers - who are hardly represented - but conservatives and nationalists. The same applies on the streets. The pensioners who protested recently against changes in their benefits were not calling for more economic reform, but for its reversal. They are a powerful lobby, with powerful supporters. Like Gorbachev, Mr Putin has to watch his back.

Twenty years ago may be another age in Russia. For turning around the unmanageable behemoth that was Soviet Russia, however, 20 years is really not long at all.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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