Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 5

?What was particularly ironic about the Babitsky case was that after having been denied basic legal rights, such as access to his lawyer, for weeks, the correspondent was freed from a Dagestani jail essentially on the oral orders of an acting head of state and presidential candidate who was promising a “dictatorship of law” in Russia. Putin’s pledge to make the playing field level for all Russians was also belied by the continuing reports of massive human rights abuses in Chechnya. Groups like the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch and Doctors for Human Rights cited Chechen refugee testimony of summary executions of civilians, looting and rape by Russian troops, along with systematic beatings and torture in “filtration camps” like the one at Chernokozov, where Babitsky had been incarcerated for two weeks.

Another of the ironies, of course, was that the Putin government’s rationale for the Chechnya operation had been to save Russian citizens from rule by terrorists. It was unclear, however, whether Putin even viewed ethnic Chechens as Russian citizens. In an open letter to voters laying out what he saw as the country’s basic problems and tasks, he referred to himself as “russky,” which means an ethnic Russian. His predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, had always used the term “rossiisky” or “rossiyanin,” meaning a citizen of Russia.

And while Putin was also pledging that Russia’s powerful oligarchs would no longer get special treatment if he were elected on March 26, he was forced to admit that businesses connected to tycoons Roman Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky had in fact purchased stakes in three of the country’s largest aluminum factories and two related installations. That gave them effective control over 70 percent of Russia’s aluminum industry. Asked by reporters about it, the acting president, visibly uncomfortable, said that he had asked the state’s antimonopoly ministry to investigate the deal and claimed that he had not known about it in advance. This, some observers noted, meant either that he was dangerously out of the loop for a head of state, or that he had in fact approved the deal. Either way, it was another sign that Putin’s promise of a “dictatorship of law” was little more than election eve window dressing.