The Question That Putin Did Not Take

GPlus Europe, a consulting agency that works for the Kremlin, contacted The Moscow Times last week with a question: Would a reporter like to ask President Vladimir Putin a question at his annual news conference?

A GPlus Europe official explained that he had been asked to put together a list of possible questions and, if The Moscow Times would send one, he would submit it to the Kremlin.

While we frown on the practice of prescreening questions, the opportunity to speak to Putin was too good to pass up. So we put our heads together and came up with this question: "Mr. President, what do you see as the biggest mistake you have made during your eight years in office?"

The GPlus Europe official liked it. "Good question," he said. We then sat back and wondered how Putin might answer.

Putin was accused of making a big mistake shortly after he assumed office -- when the Kursk nuclear submarine sank in the Barents Sea in August 2000. Putin never accepted responsibility for the sinking or the botched rescue operation.

The Kursk was followed by a series of terrorist attacks -- Dubrovka, airplane bombings, Beslan -- and the Kremlin's heavy-handed response.

The West, however, might say Putin made his biggest mistake in rolling back democracy by canceling gubernatorial elections, making both houses of parliament subservient to the Kremlin and taking over major media outlets.

Political opponents might say Putin was wrong to implement legislation and take other measures that have left the country without an opposition.

Investors might point to the Yukos affair to raise concerns about the rule of law and property rights.

Putin no doubt would retort that these were not mistakes but deliberate, vital steps taken to rebuild the weakened Russia inherited from Boris Yeltsin.

In our opinion, Putin's biggest mistake was failing to stop the consolidation of power at the right time. While the consolidation did prevent regions from seceding and Russia from ultimately disintegrating, it went too far, making the country overly dependent on the will and abilities of a small group of people. In the absence of checks and balances and a thorough discussion of policy options, Russia's future now hinges on the president and his small inner circle. If Putin makes a mistake, the whole system could be destabilized.

Putin, who intends to become prime minister after he leaves office, must now resist the temptation to transfer presidential powers to the prime minister's office. Doing so would aggravate the mistake of overconsolidating power by personifying that power in one man -- Putin.

But what does Putin himself see as his biggest mistake? He has never admitted to making a mistake in eight years, and apparently he was not interested in starting Thursday. The Kremlin declined to take our question.