Is Putin Self-Destructing?

With the arrest of Russia's richest man, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia has lurched into a deep political crisis. Unwittingly, President Vladimir Putin has opted for an all-or-nothing victory over the oil oligarch. At stake is nothing less than Russia's frail democracy.

The legal charges against Khodorkovsky concern old privatization and tax evasion cases. But the charges against Khodorkovsky are as flimsy as they are tendentious: the privatization case had been amicably settled previously, and Khodorkovsky has merely used tax avoidance schemes that are commonplace in Russia--and that have been upheld in court. Putin's real problem is that Khodorkovsky is too powerful and independent for the straitened politics he wants.

During his four years in power, Putin has advanced four major policies. The first three--free market reform, the rule of law, and a pragmatic foreign policy--have been widely acclaimed, while the fourth--"managed democracy"--has been tolerated because it has brought political stability. But "managed democracy" now threatens to unravel all three of his real achievements.

Khodorkovsky is the fourth major businessmen taken out of action by the authorities. Four independent TV channels have also been taken over by the state, and no criticism of Putin is permitted in significant media. The main polling organizations have also been brought under Kremlin control. Regional elections are regularly manipulated, often by disqualifying leading opposition candidates. The pattern is evident: a systematic authoritarian drive is underway.