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Towards a Liberal Dictatorship?

MOSCOW: Russia's presidential elections next month now look like a coronation. The speed of Vladimir Putin's seemingly irresistible rise astounds everyone. What is the secret of his phenomenal political success?

The answer, at its most general, appears simple: Putin took the two warring clans of Boris Berezovsky and Anatoly Chubais – which together control much of Russia's wealth and public space – and united them behind him. The upshot of this marriage of convenience has brought an obscure former KGB officer, a strongman whose activities gave rise to rumors of illegal enrichment and shady real estate deals, reportedly hushed and covered up in Yeltsin's Russia, to the summit of power.

What Putin brings to this menage is control over the security ministries – as always in Russia, an important key to power and one of the main pillars of Putin's political edifice. Putin is wary about relinquishing this asset, so he vested its supervision in the loyal hands of Sergei Shoigu, who is in many ways a Putin clone, for he used the ruins of the old Soviet civil defense system to construct in a short space of time a secretive empire of his own.

The second element in Putin's edifice of political power – contributed by his clan allies – is a hidden control of Russia's media. Political scientist Sergei Markov has labeled today's Russia a "manipulative democracy" – a system in which the state pulls the strings behind a facade of democratic institutions. During December's Duma elections, for example, the government – in violation of existing electoral laws – used its influence to give both covert and overt support to the "party of power," Unity (Yedinstvo). Russia's leaders' willingness to ignore the law when it is not to their liking revives bad memories here, as government domination of the media shuts off the public from influence over the state, which is becomes ever more unaccountable.