Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 21

President Vladimir Putin likes the term “dictatorship of the law,” and asks people to accept the formulation as something benign–nothing more than the strict application of one set of rules for all Russians. In practice, however, Putin’s “dictatorship of the law” has meant using law enforcement, the judiciary and other state institutions as a “club” against political enemies. Indeed, it was this kind of “dictatorship of the law” which was on full display over the past fortnight.

First there was the court decision disqualifying Aleksandr Rutskoi, the Kursk region’s incumbent governor, from running in the October 22 gubernatorial election. The Kursk Oblast court based its ruling on the fact that Rutskoi had improperly declared his property while registering as a candidate and had used his official post for campaigning. Few doubted that the charges were basically true: Rutskoi has hardly been an exemplar of good government. This however, does not distinguish him from in any way from Russia’s other eighty-eight regional bosses–or from Putin himself, who, in the walk-up to the presidential election earlier this year, made full use of the massive “administrative resources” bequeathed to him by Boris Yeltsin. The fact that the Kursk court moved against Rutskoi only at the eleventh hour, using accusations that had been around since the campaign’s start, gave grounds for suspecting someone “at the top” had pushed it to act. This suspicion was only heightened with the publication of what the weekly Novaya gazeta said was a secret Kremlin document. It listed the incumbent governors to be disqualified from impending elections–including Rutskoi–and the “legal” grounds for doing so.

The next targets of the Putin “dictatorship of the law” were two powerful media moguls–Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky. The Russian president tipped his hand in an interview with France’s Le Figaro newspaper, warning that the state had a lethal “club” it would use against any oligarch who attempted to “blackmail” it. He singled out for opprobrium the “two or three” tycoons who had taken over Russia’s main media during the Yeltsin years. Several days later, Deputy Prosecutor General Vasily Kolmogorov announced that his office had summoned both tycoons to appear for questioning on November 13–Gusinsky as a suspect in a case of alleged fraud involving US$473 million in loans and loan guarantees that his Media-Most holding had received from the Gazprom natural gas monopoly; Berezovsky as a suspect in a case involving the alleged embezzlement of hundreds of millions of dollars from Aeroflot, the Russian state airline. Kolmogorov made it clear that both men could be arrested, and warned Gusinsky that if he ignored the summons, as he had done before, Russia would put him on the wanted list maintained by Interpol, the international crime-fighting agency.

Few observers bought the Kremlin line that the Kursk Oblast court had acted independently in ruling against Aleksandr Rutskoi, and an equal number believed the Prosecutor General’s Office acted on its own in summoning Gusinsky and Berezovsky. As in the Rutskoi case, nobody was arguing that Gusinsky and Berezovsky were the moral equivalents of Andrei Sakharov or Vaclav Havel. But a look at the Kremlin’s own media “team”–including Press Minister Mikhail Lesin, RTR state television’s Nikolai Svanidze, Gazprom-Media chief Alfred Kokh and Fund for Effective Politics founder Gleb Pavlovsky–along with its new Orwellian “information security doctrine,” suggested that Putin’s moves against the oligarchs were less a clean-up campaign than another round in Russian politics’ endless gang warfare.