Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 3

The question of Acting President Vladimir Putin’s democratic credentials or lack thereof continues to be discussed in somewhat nervous tones. In an interview published today, Yevgenia Albats, veteran journalist and author of a book on the Soviet KGB, asked Anatoly Chubais, head of United Energy Systems and Putin’s one-time boss in the Kremlin administration, about what guarantees there were that democracy, individual rights and human rights would be respected if–as Chubais himself predicted–Putin moves to “toughen” state power as a way to fight corruption, insubordination within the state apparatus and other problems within Russia. Chubais said that there cannot be any such guarantees within the state itself, but that they do exist within society–such as the mass media. Interestingly, Chubais specifically mentioned NTV television, part of the Media-Most empire founded by tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, saying that the channel “will play a very important role” in the new political alignment (Izvestia, January 5).

During the weeks leading up to the December 19 State Duma elections, Media-Most’s Seven Days publishing house, which includes the newspaper Segodnya, was raided by the federal tax police–an act which its editors said amounted to politically motivated harassment allegedly initiated by Kremlin administration chief Aleksandr Voloshin, tycoon Boris Berezovsky’s main Kremlin ally. Neither Chubais nor any other top members of the Union of Right-wing Forces at that time criticized the raid or came out in defense of Most-Media, whose outlets were then strongly critical of the Kremlin and friendly toward Fatherland-All Russia, the political bloc headed by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. In addition, Chubais’ concern with press freedom seems to be newly acquired. Nezavisimaya gazeta editor Vitaly Tretyakov once recounted an autumn 1996 meeting between top newspaper editors and Chubais, then head of Yeltsin’s administration, during which one editor complained to Chubais that the presidential administration was interfering in editorial policy via Gazprom, which controlled the publication. According to Tretyakov, Chubais responded: “You will do what the owners tell you. And if you don’t, bones will crack” (Moscow Times, November 21, 1997).

In any case, Chubais said in his interview today that his and Putin’s views concerning democracy are “similar.” However, he also said he had never discussed the issue with Putin.

In a doctrinal document published just before Yeltsin’s resignation, Putin, who made his career in the Soviet KGB, said that Russia cannot at its current stage of development be a model Western-style democracy like Great Britain, and that the state would have to continue to play a strong regulatory role. He promised, however, that the state will protect the basic democratic rights of Russian citizens.

Some Soviet-era dissidents and human rights campaigners, however, have been less sanguine than Chubais about what Putin’s accession might mean for democracy. In an interview published just before Yeltsin’s resignation, Sergei Grigoryants, head of the Glasnost Foundation, warned that Putin and Berezovsky were “rushing to establish control over the mass media” and that censorship had already been imposed on state media and those belonging to Berezovsky–on reporting involving not only the war in Chechnya, but also “the internal situation in Russia, Western assessments of Russian politics and much else.” Grigoryants added: “It is still hard to say whether we are capable of protecting that little for which we paid so dearly over the last decade–above all, freedom of speech, freedom from ideological diktat, Russia’s openness. The most important thing to understand is that we could lose all this very quickly” (Segodnya, December 30).

For her part, Yelena Bonner, a veteran human rights activist and widow of the late Andrei Sakharov, said of Yeltsin’s resignation and Putin’s accession: “After eight years in the Kremlin, sadly, what has Boris Nikolaevich achieved? Nothing. He left Russia with a dangerous constitution which was written just for him, and now Putin will exploit it” (Time, January 1).