Friday, November 6, 2015
For years after the Soviet Union's collapse, Russia's liberals and Westerners alike hoped that the freed people and new republics would form law-abiding and democratic states. Putin's rule has labored to prevent that from happening, and the old Soviet world has hardened to its new shape. Across the rolling expanse of steppe, forest, and mountain range formerly under Kremlin rule, every single government unfailingly declares itself democratic. But aside from in the Baltic states, few in the region can speak candidly on television or the radio, or watch a free and independent news broadcast of local origin, or enjoy unmolested public assembly that criticizes the government, or have a fair hearing before an impartial judge in a court where the law is the highest authority, or select leaders from a slate of candidates who have been allowed to campaign openly and without restriction. This is the state of the Russian-speaking world nearly two decades after the wall came down.
This is his world. When Moscow proved too opaque, this is where I would go to see Vladimir Putin's reflection.
In Belarus, the opposition to President Aleksandr Lukashenko was portrayed on state television news (the only broadcast news in the country) as homosexual, drug-abusing, and in the pay of spies. Campaign managers were jailed, as were the protestors against electoral abuses. Both opposition candidates that stood against Lukashenko were arrested during and after the race, and one, Aleksandr Kazulin, was sentenced to five and a half years in jail for leading a protest march. He was released this year to attend the funeral of his wife, who died of cancer, and then led back to his cell.
Kazulin's fate has been less harsh than others. In Tajikistan in 2005, Makhmadrouzi Iskandarov, an opposition leader who said he would run for president, was convicted of terrorism and other charges. He was sentenced to twenty-three years in jail at a closed trial.
In Kazakhstan that year, a newspaper editor who published court documents from the United States detailing the corruption of President Nursultan Nazarbayev was mugged by men who carved a censor's X across his chest. Two prominent opposition politicians died of gunshot wounds around election time. One, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, was found shot twice in the chest and once in the head. (The police suggested the death was a suicide, the three shots apparently evidence of resolve.) The other, Altynbek Sarsenbaiuly, was bound at the wrists and murdered in early 2006 by officers from Kazakhstan's former KGB.
In Uzbekistan, protestors, many chanting "Freedom," were dispersed by government machine-gun fire in 2005. No outsider knows how many people died, and President Islam Karimov blocked all independent reviews. Blocked is euphemism here: Two survivors who were interviewed by me and two colleagues were later dragged from a refugee camp by Uzbek intelligence officers and imprisoned after show trials; a local journalist who assisted us had a bounty placed on his head by the Uzbek government for his own writings. Soon after, he was shot.
In Azerbaijan, after the last parliamentary election, demonstrators and candidates were clubbed by phalanxes of riot police and chased by trucks with water cannons after protesting the intimidation, vote stuffing, and rigged counts that accompanied the ruling party's overwhelming official victory.
In Turkmenistan, after the dictator Saparmurat Niyazov died, the man in line to be acting president was arrested, securing another insider's path to power.
In Armenia, the government declared a state of emergency amid street protests to a flawed vote, and sent tanks to disperse the crowds.
During Putin's second term, I traveled to each of these former Soviet nations and observed their political machines. In Russia, where I lived, control of elections is almost total. But across the region, there are shades in the palette of repression and official crime, and the Kremlin's election-season repression was less crude and violent than in many former Soviet states. Putin, who had the opportunity to be a democrat, instead chose to lead this club. At a time when he was popular and powerful, he never trusted Russia's people or politics enough to allow a free vote. He dashed his chance at legitimacy and surrendered the possibility that Russia might wield moral weight.
Instead, as he became Russia's preeminent man, he pulled the levers of a reinvigorated state to suit himself. And this year when Russia invaded Georgia, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili was instantly assigned the role of criminal on Russian TV, just as Mikhail Khodorkovsky had been before him.
Early this year, Putin was challenged by a reporter at a news conference over the continued vote fabrications in Chechnya. There, according to the government's figures for the parliamentary election last year, 99 percent of the voters had cast ballots, and 99 percent of the ballots were for the political party Putin leads. Such election figures have been rivaled only in Kim Jong-il's North Korea, Mao's China, Niyazov's Turkmenistan, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. They were especially absurd for a vote in Chechnya, a land shaped by cycles of resistance to Russian rule, and that had been brought back to yoke by force. The correspondent wanted to know: Did the president of Russia find these numbers credible?
Putin declined to answer. Instead, he asked a state journalist from Chechnya to answer for him. The young Chechen quickly stood. "These are absolutely realistic figures," he said, grinning obsequiously. And Vladimir Putin watched with a mix of satisfaction and boredom, the face of unchecked power itself.
See why Esquire chose Vladimir Putin as one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century.