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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin's Priorities Off Target

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It can be difficult when your country's leader pursues views and policies that are considerably different from yours, as America's Democrats are discovering under the Bush administration.

Things can be really tough when the leader represents the views of a decided minority, as was the case with Chile under Augusto Pinochet.

But things become virtually intolerable when the leader of your country does not actually have any views or beliefs of his own. This is the case with President Vladimir Putin.

Early last week, for instance, Putin suddenly condemned the death penalty, saying that the state has no right to take away what the Divine Power has given. This is the kind of statement for which liberals like myself have been waiting from our leaders for quite a while. After all, our state has killed so many people — from the repressions of the 1930s to the present-day atrocities in Chechnya — that it has forfeited any rights over life and death.

However, two days later, Putin made a move that undermined the very essence of his anti-death penalty statement. During a meeting with Duma leaders, he outlined his dissatisfaction with his own Pardons Commission, which has de facto abandoned the death penalty at least since the spring of 1996.

I was a member of that commission from its creation in 1992 until I resigned in the summer of 2000. I can attest that this commission is a rare example of a strong civic organization that managed to avoid both corruption and sycophancy toward the state. By instituting the message of clemency in the context of Russia's intolerable society, it has performed a great service to the country.

Now, though, the commission is on the verge of being dissolved and replaced with a Soviet-style analog. Putin has virtually shut it down. Since last fall, he has signed only a handful of clemencies, as opposed to the several thousand that President Boris Yeltsin signed each year at the commission's request.

Union of Right Forces leader Boris Nemtsov, who attended the meeting with Putin, explained his hostile attitude toward the commission as the result of influence from former KGB bureaucrats who now form a significant part of the president's Kremlin entourage.

Perhaps, then, we should just consider Putin's statement on the death penalty as a pubic-relations run-up to the upcoming G-7 summit in Genoa.

Consider another example. Early in his presidency, Putin became dubiously associated with the phrase "dictatorship of law." Back then, I raised the question of whether that meant law and order or just order without law. Recently, the Duma passed the long-awaited judicial reform which, although limited, was a Kremlin initiative.

However, several days later, federal troops killed, tortured and robbed dozens of innocent civilians in Chechnya, clearly demonstrating the concept of order without law even to the extreme extent of inflicting the death penalty without due process. Putin has not said a word about these incidents, just as he has said virtually nothing about any other atrocities committed in Chechnya over the last two years.

And let's add to the list Putin's promise to free the state from the control of the oligarchs. Two of them have been kicked out, but others have been luckier. The Kremlin has given them the chance to create some nonbudgetary, nontransparent funds to help the families of those who died aboard the Kursk and to support the families of soldiers and officers killed in Chechnya. Payments into these funds have ranged from $5 million to $8 million from owners of major oil companies to a mere $300,000 from smaller enterprises. In the ensuing months, the press reported that various state agencies had made decisions favorable to the chosen oligarchs.

Judging by his deeds rather than his words, Putin seems to have no political beliefs but rather loyalties instead. One loyalty is toward his former KGB colleagues. Another is toward the former colleagues with whom he worked in St. Petersburg's government. And a third is toward those in the Kremlin (and outside it) who made him president.

If he were an ordinary man with loyalties toward family, teachers and colleagues, it wouldn't matter much. However, it is important when the president of a country in transition tries to substitute loyalties for coherent political views. Knowing the president's real views might not make some people very happy, but at least it would foster predictability and certainty. Swinging wildly from one loyalty to another does exactly the opposite.

Yevgenia Albats is a freelance journalists based in Moscow.