How to Invent Enemies and a Strong Russia

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Who is Mr. Putin? Until 2003, he was a leader who could have made Russia a truly great country if he followed through on his liberal economic program.

But he had one weakness. As a former security services operative, machinations became his modus operandi for ruling the country. And he who lives by machinations sooner or later falls victim to them.

President Vladimir Putin surrounded himself with people who were terribly unqualified to run a business or government. But they were very skilled in another area -- exposing Putin's enemies. If there are no enemies, you can always invent them. And once the enemies were exposed, Putin's friends grabbed up their assets.

The first to fall victim to this kind of scheme was Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Putin's confidantes issued dire warnings to the president about how Khodorkovsky was planning to seize power. This campaign continued every day until Putin was convinced that Khodorkovsky posed a real threat.

Whenever Putin believed he had a sworn enemy, that person was removed at the drop of a hat. When he thought that Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov wanted to become president, Kasyanov quickly found himself out of a job. Also, once Putin was convinced that Russneft founder Mikhail Gutseriyev was financing insurgents in Ingushetia, the Federal Tax Service initiated an investigation against the company for tens of millions of dollars in back taxes.

Putin did not make a lot mistakes at the helm, but he never admitted to the few he did make. Instead, he attributed his mistakes to the intrigues of his enemies. Take the seizure and expropriation of Yukos, for example. That was not a mistake, but the successful elimination of a dangerous enemy. Or take the defeat of pro-Kremlin candidate Viktor Yanukovych in the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election. It wasn't that Putin made mistakes in formulating his policy toward Ukraine; it was the insidious United States that undercut everything by plotting an Orange Revolution.

As government corruption became increasingly worse, the picture presented on state television became increasingly rosy. While Putin's elite vacationed at the posh French ski resort in Kurshavel, the Kremlin constantly warned Russia's lumpen proletariat of the country's mortal enemies in the West. As Nashi youth pelted the Estonian Embassy with stones, eggs and insults, Russian state-controlled television presented this as the resurgence of a "strong Russia."

"Strong" is the key word here. Any person who is incapable of making decisions in difficult situations has a great need to pretend to be strong. Remember the photos of Putin shirtless during a fishing trip or the shots of him in the cockpit of fighter jets. But on the frightening morning of Sept. 1, 2004, when Putin -- who planned to attend a school-opening ceremony in Nalchik that day -- learned about the terrorist attack at Beslan School No. 1, located 90 kilometers away from Nalchik, he rerouted his plane in midflight and returned to Moscow.

We have been told repeatedly that Putin rules the country with a "strong hand," but, in reality, his orders are routinely ignored. He once ordered the firing of a number of high-ranking Federal Security Service officers, but they all remained at their posts. Moreover, Putin's subordinates continued to destroy companies even after he had personally told them to back off. This happened with the East Line company that owns Moscow's Domodedovo Airport, for example.

In the end, what good has come of Putin's presidency? Eight years of his authority produced swarms of enthusiastic toadies, who have already begun sucking up to the new president, Dmitry Medvedev. And, of course, his friends became very rich.

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