Kicking Putin off the Island

Russia after Putin doesn't need to be Putinist, and driving a wedge between the craven president and his inner circle is the first step.

Vladimir Putin has directly or indirectly ruled Russia since New Year's Day 2000. And, after 14 years in power, there are few signs that he will abdicate his position anytime soon. The Russian president has stated he may seek re-election in 2018, meaning he would rule until 2024 -- by which time he will be 72 years old.

No tyranny, however, lasts forever -- Hitler's 1,000-year Reich lasted all of 12 years -- and it is in this context that we should view Putin's rule. His power is not what it once was: The social contract he built with the Russian people in his earlier years -- he could do whatever he liked, as long as life improved for many of them -- is broken. High rates of economic growth are long gone, and so too is the increasing standard of living that they provided. Russians are becoming restless and, although the opposition movement as a whole is cowed and quiet, opposition candidates have performed well in recent mayoral elections. Putin resorted to invading Ukraine (at least, in part) to boost his falling approval ratings, which are now enviably high.

While many Russia-watchers cannot imagine the country without Putin at the helm, it's time for Western leaders to start. In confronting a resurgent, revanchist Kremlin, the West must have a clear vision of the ideal post-Putin Russia.

In a lot of ways, Putin was an unlikely president. A little-known figure who had spent most of his career working for the KGB, the Soviet security service, Putin moved to Moscow in 1996 and quickly developed a reputation as a "grey cardinal" -- a loyal worker who wielded power quietly, away from the spotlight. He rose through the Kremlin ranks, and in 1998 was appointed head of the FSB, Russia's secret service. As Yeltsin re-shuffled his government following the 1998 Russian financial crisis, he appointed no fewer than five prime ministers in just over a year, finally settling on Putin. Facing mounting corruption charges and with elections scheduled for the following year, Yeltsin needed a loyal heir. When Yeltsin stepped down on New Year's Eve 1999, Putin became acting president. His first act was to sign a decree giving Yeltsin immunity from prosecution. The Economist described Putin at the time as "the Great Unknown," but, driven and certain of his own staying power, he ascended without hesitation. He hasn't looked back since.

Under Putin, the Kremlin has fostered a grotesquely corrupt, illiberal system that constrains democracy, centralizes economic and political power, curtails media freedoms, reins in the judiciary, restricts civil liberties, and treads on human rights. Outside of Russia, the regime carries out extrajudicial murder, engages in the arbitrary use of force, and promotes Moscow's interests with utter disregard for international norms. 

It wasn't always this way. 

During the 1990s, Russia had the potential to develop along a liberal-democratic path. The country was a multiparty democracy in which officials were chosen in regular elections; its fledgling economy was based on markets and private property, and its media independent and pluralistic. The Russian military withdrew peacefully from Eastern Europe and the Soviet successor states, pursued cooperation with the West on nuclear disarmament, and accepted the expansion of NATO. To be sure, serious issues remained (not the least of which, its underdeveloped legal system and the pervasive nature of organized crime), but the country was headed in a promising direction. U.S. President Bill Clinton described this period as "a time of real possibility and opportunity." 

Nowhere is Putin's impact on Russia as visible as in the country's political sphere. In the 1999 parliamentary elections -- the last before Putin took power -- no fewer than 32 political parties and 1,143 independent candidates participated. While the large number of parties reflects the slow process of party consolidation after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was genuine choice for the electorate; this translated into real political debate and a diversity of legislative initiatives. In the most recent parliamentary elections, in 2011, just seven political parties took part, and no independents. These parties are accused by critics of being part of the "systemic opposition" -- parties that exist only with Kremlin approval.

Soon after Putin assumed the presidency in March 2000, he assembled an inner circle of individuals that would assist him in building a "new" Russia. Although the faces have changed over the past 14 years, many remain the same. Putin's inner circle consists of two groups of people; some have links to Putin going back to the 1990s during his time in St. Petersburg, others go back even further -- to his days in the KGB and even his childhood.

First, there are the so-called "Putin oligarchs," or individuals who have amassed wealth and power because of their closeness to Putin. They include: Yuri Kovalchuk, a leading shareholder in Bank Rossiya; Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, leading construction contractors to the state-controlled gas giant Gazprom; and Gennady Timchenko, head of the Gunvor oil trading firm. Second, there are members of the siloviki, or hardline ex-secret servicemen, including: Sergei Ivanov, Putin's chief of staff; Vyacheslav Volodin, first deputy chief of Putin's staff; and Viktor Ivanov, a former deputy head of the Kremlin administration. It is a cohort of individuals who control key sectors of Russia's kleptocratic economy and its brutal security services, but who've already felt the heat of Western sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine -- something Putin has called a "violation of human rights." By targeting these individuals, the West is driving a wedge between Putin and his closest allies. But it can do more to weaken his standing.

Sanctions should become the status quo, and they should go further than visa bans and asset freezes, to include asset seizures. Given the choice between siding with Putin and protecting some of their vast wealth stored in Western capitals and financial centers, enough of them will go with the latter. The friction and resentment that this creates will demonstrate the growing fissures within the Kremlin -- over what is needed to improve Russia's economy, what direction the country is headed, and whether international isolation is sensible -- and may even lead to Russia's elite deciding the country needs new leadership. This would make clear to the next generation of politicians, policymakers, and businessmen that being associated with Putin and his system comes with a price.

If the West is going to uproot Putin, it must remember that past successes employed more subtle strategic campaigns. The West may have won the Cold War because of the superiority of capitalism over Soviet communism, but one of the most subversive -- and effective -- acts it undertook was to offer visas to Soviet students as part of "cultural exchange" programs. In doing so, the students were exposed to the West's democratic and liberal values and took these back to germinate in the Motherland. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's twin reformist policies of glasnost ("openness") and perestroika ("restructuring") took hold, Soviet citizens were equipped to take advantage. In the words of one U.S. foreign service officer involved in these programs, those citizens of the Evil Empire "came, they saw, they were conquered, and the Soviet Union would never again be the same."

Now, once again, Western countries should liberalize their visa regimes with Russia, rather than follow the European Union's lead in freezing talks on a visa-free regime. This will make it easier for the next generation of Russian decision-makers to expose themselves to liberal-democratic values and, as a result, they will be far better prepared when Putin leaves power.

Offering cultural exchanges may seem like a long-term program, but in the short-term the West could pay more attention to countering Putin's increasingly anti-Western propaganda in Russia. Across the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe broadcasts were an important alternative to the Kremlin's lies. Now, the West must revive this Cold War thinking by providing money, expertise, technology, and support for Russian-language broadcasting in Russia. This would meet Putin's propaganda head-on, and begin to drive out bad information with good. It would send a clear message that the West is not going to give up on Russia just yet.

It is not possible to turn the clock back to a pre-Putin era, but that doesn't mean the West should consign Russia to the dustbin of history. Despite what Kremlinologists might claim, it is not inevitable that a post-Putin Russia will be Putinist. Although they are embattled and less prominent than they used to be, there are still liberals in Russia. Even the Soviet Union's Politburo was not as monolithic as many assumed. Whether the end of Putin's rule is evolutionary or revolutionary, the West must be clear about how it hopes to see Russia develop; it must be willing to put long-term strategic objectives over short-term economic interests. 

A Russia without Putin is cloaked in uncertainty, and there is no guarantee it would be any more democratic or liberal -- when anti-Putin protests broke out in Russia, they had more to do with rejecting Putin than rejecting his take-no-prisoners style of leadership. But the West should help guide a post-Putin Russia for the sake of the Russian people, Eastern Europe, and the world as a whole. Western governments should engage in dialogue with NGOs and civil society, supporting those battling corruption and promoting human rights. They ought to speak to Russian liberals and those members of the Russian opposition committed to democracy and liberalism.

Putin might be flexing his military muscles in Ukraine and demonstrating his steely indifference to threats from the West, but in the end it is the West, and not Putin, who could ultimately determine Russia's future.

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Her Majesty's Big Brother

Britain has plenty of good reasons to stop its citizens from fighting in Syria, but asking mothers to inform on their sons won't work.

Last week, Britain launched a nationwide campaign to keep its youngsters from joining the jihad in Syria. In addition to enhancing collaboration between police and charitable organizations, including mosques, British women are being encouraged to inform on family members that might be thinking about shipping off to fight Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime. Moved forward by New Scotland Yard, Britain's metropolitan police service, the campaign is one of several preventative measures outlined in the country's newly updated "CONTEST" counterterrorism strategy. Earlier measures proved controversial, with critics arguing that the "PREVENT" strand of the strategy did more to vilify the British Muslim community than aid the fight against terrorism. This latest iteration is already kicking up a similar storm of controversy -- for better or for worse.

The phenomenon of British nationals traveling overseas to participate in foreign conflicts is not particularly new. In the 1930s, for example, George Orwell went off to fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Then in the 1990s, a number of British nationals went to fight in Bosnia, mostly on the Bosniak side. Since the war broke out in Syria, at least 400 Britons are said to have joined the fray. But while the Syrian experience may seem like just the latest episode in a familiar historical pattern, there are ways in which it is actually quite different. Unlike previous fighters venturing abroad, the foreigners battling Assad in Syria are, by and large, not fighting simply to overthrow a tyrannical regime. The radicalism they promote -- made clear in their public discourse and by their track record when they actually take control of a particular area -- is an end in and of itself.

Most of these fighters are not interested in returning to Britain. They are fighting to establish their version of an Islamic state -- and they intend to live there once it's in place. But if any of them eventually return -- as inevitably many of them will -- they will come back far more radicalized than when they left. It is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that some of them might refocus their rage on the British state.

Nevertheless, it is unclear how the British government's latest tactic is going to address the problem. For it to work, parents would have to both be aware of their children's growing radicalization before it's too late, and trust that British authorities can help them defuse the situation. Those assumptions are questionable. For example, the family of Abdullah Deghayes, a Libyan-British teenager who was recently killed in Syria, insisted that they discovered his intent to join the fight against Assad only after he was gone. Moreover, both the boy's father and an aunt said they would not have reported him to the police. As far as they were concerned, Deghayes traveled to Syria to help the Syrian people, not become a terrorist at the hands of al Qaeda militants.

At the root of the British government's initiative is an expectation that families will trust the police and criminal justice system to protect their sons (and also some daughters), whom they admit may be vulnerable. At present, however, no such atmosphere of trust exists between communities -- in particular between the Muslim communities that are the target of the initiative, and security services. Scotland Yard has made it clear that families contacting the police would have full confidentiality, but it is hard to believe that the security services would keep such a pledge if they felt public safety was at risk.

A significant portion of that trust deficit stems from another part of the government's strategy for dealing with the radical threat coming from Syria. A rather draconian law from the post-9/11 War on Terror allows the home secretary to arbitrarily strip nationals of citizenship, so long as it doesn't result in their becoming stateless. In recent months, the British government, however, has even tried to remove the statelessness exception, inviting backlash from human rights organizations in the process.

The House of Lords rejected the amendment in the end, but significant parts of Britain's Muslim community got the message: If their children venture abroad, they risk never being able to return. This is not actually true -- hundreds have travelled, while only dozens have had their citizenship revoked. Nonetheless many believe that if a young British Muslim goes to Syria, he or she is guilty until proven innocent. That perception does not help matters.

There are, of course, very good reasons for the British government to discourage travel to Syria. The risk of radicalization is real. Nevertheless, this particular strategy is deeply flawed. It will not encourage families to enlist the services of the state in order to help young people, even if that is the government's intent. Instead, it will simply increase the trust deficit between authorities and the most vulnerable segments of the British population -- precisely those segments that are most susceptible to radicalization.

There are several steps that ought to be taken immediately. When British citizens travel abroad to war-torn countries like Syria, they ought to be made aware that while they are likely to be debriefed upon their return, they will not be automatically investigated for criminal activity. Such debriefings should be compulsory, and should always precede criminal investigation if it is deemed necessary. Moreover, the practice of denationalizing British citizens needs to end. If a citizen is suspected of involvement in terrorist activity, he or she ought to face trial -- not be stripped of citizenship. If deemed to be a flight risk, passports should be temporarily confiscated. As for Britons abroad, citizenship ought to remain inviolable until a proper investigation can be carried out with due process.

Home Secretary Theresa May has repeatedly said that being British was a privilege, rather than a right. But actually, it is a right for every citizen -- and not one that ought to be summarily usurped by an arbitrary decision by the home secretary. Beyond flouting basic human rights standards, such a practice all but ensures that those who are having second thoughts about being in Syria will remain there regardless. Certainly, those who are rendered stateless will be even more vulnerable to radicalization. As the former Director of Public Prosecutions Lord Macdonald of River Glaven has said, this latest judicial proposal "associates the United Kingdom with a policy beloved of the world's worst regimes during the 20th century."

While the conflict in Syria rages, it will invariably attract some sympathetic fighters from abroad. Given the brutality of the Assad regime, this is exceedingly predictable. Many will go for purely humanitarian reasons; others will engage in martial actions. Both camps will go because of a feeling that the international community is doing next to nothing to address the conflict in Syria -- and they will be correct in that assessment. The longer the fighting drags on, the more fuel will have been added to the radical narrative.

Until a solution can be found, one hopes that it will only be George Orwell's book on foreign fighters in the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, that Britons cite in relation to the Syrian war -- and not 1984, another one of his works that comes to mind when government's ask their citizens to inform on one another.

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