How Putin made corruption great again


Russian police arbitrarily detained hundreds of people during peaceful protests on June 12, 2017, in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Human Rights Watch said today:

Riot police in both cities used excessive force against protesters. If protesters questioned their detentions or refused to go willingly, the police handled them roughly and in some cases dragged them on the ground, beat them with truncheons, kicked them with booted feet, and punched them. Some of the abuse took place in full view of observers who filmed it with video cameras and cell phones. People also experienced ill-treatment near or inside police buses.

“The mass detentions on June 12 were arbitrary and abusive,” said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch. “People have a right to free assembly, authorized or not.”

For many Russians, there is a blatant contradiction between the patriotic consensus Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks and the immiseration they face at home, notes Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and editor in chief of The economic growth of his early years in office has been replaced with the idea of suffering—the hardship of stagnation and sanctions that are the apparent price for assertive foreign policy, he writes for The Atlantic:

But the wages of privation do not seem to extend to the new generation of oligarchs he has surrounded himself with—his old friends, including Gennady Timchenko, the Rotenberg brothers, and Igor Sechin, all of whom became billionaires during his rule, and even receive support from the state. (Parliament passed a special law with huge tax privileges for those touched by Western sanctions.) This is what corruption in the Putin era means. While much has been done in recent years to combat low-level corruption between citizens and authorities, his style of rule implies a “controlled corruption,” when his cronies can reckon for the reward.

How did Russia go from glasnost and perestroika to Putin and kleptocracy?

The Economist’s Arkady Ostrovsky talks with WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman about the reality behind the headlines. The author of The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War, argues that Putin is simply a reactive politician, driven to using nationalism to exploit fear, insecurity and feelings of inferiority.

The U.S. government has long warned that Russian organized crime posed a threat to democratic institutions, including “criminally linked oligarchs,” who might collude with the Russian government to undermine business competition, AP’s Eric Tucker writes for TIME. Besides cyber threats, Justice Department officials in recent years have worried about the effect of unchecked international corruption, creating a kleptocracy initiative to recover money plundered by government leaders for their own purposes.

President Trump’s highly anticipated meeting with Putin today should be the beginning of the end of pretending that Russia is a great power and not a kleptocracy that bleeds people, builds nothing, and stokes chaos abroad, says analyst Peter Savodnik.

Russian policymakers expect Trump “to demonstrate a certain public toughness with Putin for his domestic critics, and they can live with this,” said Vladimir Frolov, an independent foreign policy analyst based in Moscow. “Provided that in private Trump makes it clear he wants to close the page on prior disagreements and start rebuilding the relationship without making it conditional on Russia’s dramatic and immediate reversal of its policies in Ukraine and Syria,” he told The Washington Post.

“The president’s advisers obviously hope to stay in the room with him for the meeting. But what will they say if Putin says to Trump, ‘Mr. President, may I have a word with you privately?'” said Steve Sestanovich, senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University. “That has happened many times in such encounters — and the private word can go for hours!”

Democracy advocates and senior White House aides were reportedly hoping that the National Security Council’s leading Russia hand – Fiona Hill, the NSC’s senior director for Europe and Russia —would be in the room during President Trump’s highly anticipated meeting with Putin today (she wasn’t).

As the author of a psychological biography of Putin, Hill is aware of how the 1980s shaped his authoritarian outlook. As the Soviet system disintegrated, the Russian president was a young KGB agent serving in an isolated part of East Germany observing the collapse of Communism, an experience that would shape him — and his country, Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy wrote for The Atlantic.

Putin came of age marinaded in this culture of blackmail, bribery, pathological manipulation and duplicity, notes Jeffrey Gedmin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Putin’s German biographer, Boris Reitschuster, says his early years in Dresden—it was in East Germany that the young KGB man spent his formative years—would later inspire Putin to build “some kind of East Germany in Russia,” he writes for The American Interest.

Putin was intimately engaged with the Stasi, a spy agency that not only monitored and repressed East German citizens, but actively promoted terrorist and anti-democratic groups in Western Europe and the Middle East, not least in a concerted effort to undermine the region’s only democracy.

In Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, 1967-1989, University of Maryland professor Jeffrey Herf examines this spectrum of antagonism:

The book is about ideas and politics as well as about details of arms deliveries and military training. The depth of the Soviet bloc and East German alliance with Hafez al-Assad’s Syria is well documented in the files. The history of intelligence cooperation between the Stasi and the PLO and of what I call East Germany’s Eurocentric definition of counterterrorism is particularly interesting.

Putin’s assault on liberal democracies confirms that “we are in a new battle of ideas, pitting not communism against capitalism, but authoritarianism against democracy and representative government,” argues Rep. Adam Schiff, adding that the U.S. “must not shrink from its essential role as democracy’s champion.”

The protest movement has reappeared in Russia, the Hudson Institute’s David Satter writes for The Wall Street Journal:

Denis Volkov, a researcher with the Levada Center, has explained the popularity of protest leader Alexei Navalny among young Russians. “He focuses on simple but crucial issues: it is bad to lie, steal, and to be a hypocrite,” Mr. Volkov writes. “Corruption and bribes are wrong.” In the face of this kind of appeal, the U.S. cannot seek an unprincipled deal with Mr. Putin if it wishes to have some influence over Russia’s fate in the years ahead.

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