Vampires in the Kremlin

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Long before we passed the eight-year anniversary of President Boris Yeltsin naming Vladimir Putin as his successor, we began hearing about how Putin saved Russia from disintegration. "Putin stopped Russia's collapse!" "Putin established order!" And these are not so much political slogans as they are a measure of the unconditional faith that pro-Kremlin officials have in their fearless leader. When these politicians greet you, their first words are: "Putin saved the nation that Yeltsin ruined."

But Putin should have given Yeltsin fair warning about this when Putin was anointed as his successor. He should have looked Yeltsin right in the eyes and said, "Boris Nikolayevich, you let this country degenerate into disorder and chaos, but I will save it."

But the problem is not that Putin is trying to destroy the reputation of his deceased benefactor, violating all codes of honor and decency. The problem is that he is forcing distorted interpretations of the Yeltsin era down people's throats.

We are always told that under Yeltsin there was corruption and chaos. For example, Anatoly Chubais, the former first deputy prime minister who headed the country's privatization for much of the 1990s, accepted $90,000 as a book advance from a publishing company belonging to Vladimir Potanin's Oneksimbank shortly before the bank won 25 percent of Svyazinvest's shares in a privatization auction. This conflict of interest was such a scandal that Chubais left his job over the issue.

Now what do we have? Putin openly hands out multibillion-dollar companies to his friends and no questions are asked.

Under Yeltsin, Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov initiated an investigation into an allegation that government officials in the Presidential Property Department accepted huge kickbacks in the Kremlin renovation project. It caused a national scandal, but could something like that happen now? Could Putin's prosecutor general investigate, for example, why state-owned Rosneft sells oil through Gunvor, a private company owned in part by Gennady Timchenko, who has close ties to Putin?

The situation truly has changed -- not that under Yeltsin there was rampant corruption and that now there is none. The difference is that a minister accepting a $90,000 book advance under questionable circumstances used to be enough to cause a scandal, but now it won't even raise eyebrows.

We are also told that, under Yeltsin, we did not have a civilized "freedom of the press" as such, but a wild, uncontrollable media permissiveness. But the idea of a free press necessarily contains an element of permissiveness in the sense that the journalists are permitted to write what they want and people are permitted to read what they want. Now we have a terribly perverse form of permissiveness -- the government is permitted to lie as much as it wants, and we are "permitted" to listen to all of it.

The Kremlin elite imposing this worldview have stolen billions of dollars, and they understand very well that with a free press, allegations of a $90,000 kickback could lead to a government official's dismissal. The mere thought that today's elite should be exposed to public criticism or dismissed because of their crimes seems to them as being inherently wrong -- even underhanded.

They fear transparency and open criticism the same way a vampire fears the light. They talk about the tremendous work they have done in smashing every lamp and in extinguishing every candle.

And they never tire of telling us how terrible things were under Yeltsin, when there was light. They point to all of the fires caused by faulty electrical wiring, how people were reduced to poverty trying to pay their electricity bills and what an enormous burden it was to the national budget to keep all the street lights working.

It is obvious why vampires hate the light, but why should ordinary people be forced to live in the dark?

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.