Pound for political pound, Russian "prime minister" Vladimir Putin may well be the most powerful human being on this planet. Yet he may still be brought down by the inevitable corruption of power.
Though he is no longer even officially "president" of the country, Putin still has the ability to hire and fire local officials like governors and mayors, to populate and depopulate the national parliament, to name the pontiff of the Orthodox Church, and to discharge justices of Russia's supreme court at will.
He recently displayed this authority to truly terrifying effect.
Unlike its U.S. counterpart, the Russian supreme court has an explicit legal mandate in the constitution itself to be its legal arbiter, which should mean that judicial independence in Russia is even more sacrosanct. Yet when Justice Vladimir Yaroslavtsev gave an interview to the Spanish daily El País and said that Russian security agencies control the country just as they did in Soviet times -- and worried that "nobody knows what [the FSB] will decide tomorrow, there is no consultation or discussion" -- he was immediately forced to resign. When his colleague Justice Anatoly Kononov came to his defense with an interview in the Russian paper Sobesednik, he too was forced out.
Yaroslavtsev told El País that "the judiciary in Russia during the presidencies of Vladimir Putin and his successor Dmitry Medvedev had been converted into an instrument at the service of the executive powers that be" and that "the center of the adoption of [judicial] decisions is in the administration of the president." Then Putin proved him right in the most emphatic way possible.
If there were any institution more untouchable by politics than the constitutional court, one would think that would be the church, but Putin has rolled his virtual tanks across that territory as well. He has a new bill moving rapidly through the Russian parliament which will make it illegal to discuss religion unless in possession of a Kremlin-issued permit. Instead of wiping out all religion as in Soviet times, Putin has instead co-opted it; he's installed a KGB operative as pontiff of the Russian Orthodox Church and is now moving swiftly to simply wipe out his competition. The media can offer no break or check on Putin's power. When prominent TV reporter Olga Kotovskaya recently began delving into official misuse of power, she promptly "fell" out of a window on the fourteenth floor of an office tower. She's not the first journalist to "take the Putin Plunge." Russia remains one of the most dangerous places on the planet to practice the craft of journalism. Students who stand up to the regime find themselves expelled. Bloggers who dare to do so end up in prison, or bankrupted, or both. And Putin is helped along mightily, of course, by Western journalism that either ignores his abuses or actually celebrates them, by an American president who has better things to do than speak up for democracy, and by a Republican Party that cannot seem to find the wherewithal to call him to account. But Putin may have gotten a little carried away with his most recent efforts to flood the Russian parliament, called the Duma, with his sycophants. His operatives acted so shamelessly on October 11th in rigging the vote in favor of his party, United Russia, that a court in Derbent has now annulled the mayoral results there, establishing a possible precedent for court action against other candidates as well. While Putin's control over the court system would make such victories for democracy seem quite fleeting, the sheer brazenness of the fraud forced even Medvedev, the figurehead president, to comment scornfully on the proceedings. This may give the courts a bit of political cover that Putin did not expect.
And Putin himself appears to be losing touch with reality in a manner eerily similar to the behavior of Russia's insulated dictators during Soviet and tsarist times. At a recent national call-in TV show, Putin fielded prescreened questions from citizens across the country. He responded to one by accusing jailed oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky of being a murderer since one of his underlings had been convicted on such charges.
As economist Craig Pirrong points out, Putin put his foot in his mouth likely because he was seeing red over a recent ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that the Kremlin may have stolen Khodorkovsky's assets and could owe his stockholders as much as $100 billion. In furiously lashing out at Khodorkovsky, Putin seems to have forgotten the litany of homicides that have been committed by his own underlings -- homicides for which Putin must now by his own logic be blamed. Putin faces other serious pressures as well. It's not surprising that the first of the October election results to be annulled would be in Derbent: Located in the Caucasus region of Dagestan, Derbent is at the epicenter of violent insurrectionist activity where it is routine to see police and high-ranking government officials shot down it the streets. Recently, the terrorists groups there claimed to have blown a luxury express train packed with government officials off its rails en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg, killing two dozen or more. Putin has responded to the continuing tumult in the region by escalating his own terror campaign against the local population. Journalists who dare to write critically about his campaign are quickly themselves subjected to it. Russia has repeatedly been condemned by international courts for these state-sponsored atrocities, but it continues to flout the authority of those tribunals. The tighter Putin clenches his fist, the more insurrectionists slip through his fingers.
In other words, he's getting sloppy. Neo-soviet sloppy. Responding to a question during his call-in program about whether he'd return to the presidency, Putin coarsely responded that nobody should hold their breath waiting for him to leave power. When asked if a visit to a rap music program on TV was part of his new campaign for the presidency, he said he couldn't be accused of electioneering because "we have no elections." He meant no elections this year, of course, but it came out sounding like Russia never has any elections at all -- a Freudian slip of historic proportions.
Putin didn't use to be this sloppy. But as he grows ever more insulated and intoxicated by unlimited power, and as signs appear that Russia may be headed for a double-dip recession, Putin may become his own worst enemy.