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Friday, July 8, 2005. Issue 3204. Page 104.

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Managed Democracy

By Robert C. Toth


Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution
By Peter Baker and Susan Glasser
453 Pages. $27.50

"Every country has the government it deserves," a Frenchman named Joseph de Maistre said two centuries ago. In Soviet-era Russia, complicity between the rulers and the ruled was standard fare, most vividly captured in satire by the novelist Vladimir Voinovich. The mantra under the communists summed it up: "We pretend to work; they pretend to pay us."

Now, courtesy of President Vladimir Putin and without any great objection from the masses, Russia has descended into "managed democracy." That is the way Marat Gelman, once a key adviser to Putin, describes the system of government for Peter Baker and Susan Glasser in their excellent new book, "Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution." Democracy in Russia, as the subtitle indicates, has been vastly diminished, if not extinguished, by Putin over the past five years.

"Managed" is an accurate if inadequate modifier for a putative democracy with a rubber-stamp legislature, corrupt judiciary, cooperative tax inspectors, supine prosecutors and muzzled media. These attributes, coupled with events of the first half of the Putin era, from television network takeovers to the sidelining of the country's governors to the jailing and exiling of oligarchs, show that Russia may well be aimed at a full restoration of its authoritarian past. Indeed, in one of Baker and Glasser's many revealing anecdotes, Putin is quoted as telling 300 generals from the former KGB and its successor agency, the Federal Security Service, at a Lubyanka ceremony celebrating his first election in 2000: "Instruction number one for obtaining full power has been completed."

Russia is not a totalitarian state. Yet. "In any case, it won't be dictatorship like Stalin," a resigned Russian woman tells Baker and Glasser. And the authors, who recently completed nearly four years as Washington Post correspondents in Moscow, are understandably cautious in their conclusion: Whatever Putin's aspirations, they write, the political system is still too weak to allow anyone to exert the kind of full control that not long ago landed Russians in the gulag.

As a former Moscow correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, I would like to be able to say that nothing is recognizable from the bad old days. To some degree, I can.

In 1960, hostility to foreigners was palpable. Our stories, usually dealing with ideological conflict and geopolitical competition, had to pass censorship. Little was known about how Soviet citizens actually lived, although NBC correspondent Irving R. Levine described what was available in "Main Street, U.S.S.R.," the first in a line of era-defining books by Moscow-based journalists.

In the 1970s, we were harassed for meeting with and reporting on dissidents, mainly Jews who wished to emigrate, but also democratic reformers like Andrei Sakharov. The Soviet "organs" were forever working to prevent "state secrets" from being passed to us by these "traitors." Rather than state secrets, dissidents were exposing the wretched features of everyday Soviet life -- rich material not only for newspapers, but for the next generation of books, including New York Times correspondent Hedrick Smith's 1976 bestseller, "The Russians."

"Kremlin Rising" is the first comprehensive account by U.S. journalists of the Putin presidency so far, the product of diligent day-to-day reporting backed up by hundreds of recent interviews. Its 44 pages of endnotes, which identify who-said-what-when, are perhaps more than is necessary for the general reader, but any inconvenience is compensated by the credibility and authority they add to the narrative.

There have been huge improvements in Russia over the past 25 years, particularly for Moscow correspondents. Harassment has ended. The Kremlin no longer cares as much what is written for foreign readers, focusing almost wholly on controlling stories -- on television, especially -- for audiences at home. Anti-Semitism, a major issue 25 years ago, is referenced by Baker and Glasser only once, in passing. For me, the access the authors enjoyed to officials close to Putin is particularly striking. Not all of these officials remain in high positions today, but some do. And most of them, along with private individuals, allowed themselves to be identified and their words to be quoted. Remarkable, compared to the past.

At the same time, the book points to disturbing signs that some old ways of thinking have survived. One is Russia's resistance to acknowledging its totalitarian history as the source of many of its present difficulties. Another is the return of the classic Russian paranoia that blames foreigners for homegrown problems. In the 1970s, Russian kids threw well-gnawed chicken bones over the wall at our kids and called them sons of spies, or worse. Now, Putin believes that the United States deliberately sends Russia inferior chickens. He even brings it up at the highest level.

"I know you have separate plants for chickens for America and chickens for Russia," Baker and Glasser quote him as complaining to U.S. President George W. Bush in May 2002. "Vladimir, you're wrong," Bush replied. "My people have told me this is true," Putin insisted.

But "Kremlin Rising" is not just about the Kremlin. It also deals with a wide range of issues in contemporary Russian life, both promising and distressing: the booming oil-fed economy; the fragile beginnings of a middle class; the arrival of drugs and AIDS; the scandalous brutality toward recruits in the armed forces; and, not least, the corrosive effect of the war in Chechnya and the Islamic terrorism it has visited on Russia.

MT Archive

Boris Yeltsin shows Vladimir Putin the presidential office on the eve of handing over his duties in 2000.

Baker and Glasser are at their best, however, both in pace and information, when they turn to Putin and politics. They are scalding in their description of his rise from a mere KGB apparatchik to Boris Yeltsin's handpicked successor and, through his two questionable elections (though one suspects his opponents would have done the same if they could), to the rank of unchallenged leader. They draw a devastating catalog of his handling of crises, from his inept response to the Kursk submarine disaster, when he accused Boris Berezovsky's Channel One of hiring two "whores" to portray dead officers' wives, to his attempt to cover up Russia's bungled rescue efforts in the wake of the Chechen attacks on Moscow's Dubrovka theater and a school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan.

When it comes to his relations with the United States, though, Putin knows which buttons to push. After discovering Bush's soft spot for religion, he brought the family crucifix to a G8 summit. And, despite his relentless rollback of democracy, the Russian still appears to have the American conned. "The Russian people are not ready for democracy," Putin's former chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin, is quoted as saying. It seems certain that Putin believes the same.

The image that emerges is of a cold and ruthless man, quick to learn but without depth, grace or humor; easy to anger and liable to take offense at criticism; loyal to his former employer, the FSB; and probably intent on resurrecting the Russian empire. It seems likely that his first five years will have serious consequences for Russia and the world. The continued deterioration of the rule of law, as seen in the prosecution and recent sentencing of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is bound to reduce the attraction of Russia to Western investors. And Washington will certainly be alert for any indication that the renationalization of Russia's oil industry has tempted Putin to use oil as a diplomatic weapon.

In the meantime, there are three years left to the Putin era -- eventful years in all likelihood, since people who are paranoid tend to behave unpredictably -- and perhaps even more, if Putin decides to change the rules to permit himself another term, or two or three.

Robert C. Toth first reported from Moscow in 1960 and was the Los Angeles Times bureau chief from 1974 to 1977.

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