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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Real Putin

Who is Vladimir Putin?

Since the rise to power in Russia of this obscure bureaucrat and former KGB agent in the fall of 1999, two groups in the West have answered this question very differently.

For some bankers, investors and diplomats, President Vladimir Putin was a godsend. On his watch, Russia's 1998 devaluation and rising oil prices began to fuel economic growth for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. If not personally responsible for the turnaround, Putin did initiate reforms designed to sustain it over the long haul. He replaced the personal income tax with a 13 percent flat tax, cut corporate taxes, balanced the budget, paid foreign debts, legalized land ownership, supported the restructuring of the big monopolies, and even began to tackle sensitive social services reforms. Compared with the last years of Boris Yeltsin, Putin looked like a dedicated proponent of capitalism.

In parallel to this storyline of Putin as hero, a more sinister subplot emerged. As liberal tax reforms sailed through the State Duma, Putin's team was implementing illiberal political changes. During the Putin era, all national television networks effectively came back under state control. The closing of TVS last month was the final blow. Russian soldiers have continued to abuse the human rights of Russian citizens living in Chechnya. (To be sure, Chechen fighters have practiced similar inhumane tactics, but two wrongs don't make a right.) Human rights organizations have been harassed, journalists imprisoned, and Western aid workers thrown out of the country. Of course, Putin personally rarely intervened in these rollbacks of democracy. But that's the point: He did nothing to stop these obvious steps toward authoritarian rule.

These two Putins -- economic reformer and democratic backslider -- have lived side-by-side without meeting. Business people brushed aside the crackdown on the media as a necessary response to the anarchy unleashed during the Yeltsin era. The apologists claim Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, the two media magnates who were forced to flee the country to avoid jail, got what they deserved: Putin wasn't suppressing freedom of the press, only limiting the power of corrupt oligarchs. Some bold voices in the business community even championed interim dictatorship in Russia as the only way to provide the stability for investment and economic growth.

For their part, critics of Putin's anti-democratic policies undermined the punch of their analysis by exaggerating the Russian president's ruthlessness and failing to recognize his accomplishments in other spheres. They cast Putin as a new dictator who has more in common with Stalin than Boris Yeltsin or Mikhail Gorbachev.

Last week, the arrest of billionaire Platon Lebedev brought the two Putins together. Lebedev runs Group Menatep, the parent company for the Yukos oil company headed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man. Like Lebedev and others in the Yukos-Menatep organization, he made his fortune by using personal relationships with government bureaucrats to acquire state assets -- in this case, oil and mineral companies -- for a song.

When Putin first came to power, many billionaires worried the new president would redistribute property rights once again, this time to a new set of cronies. Instead, Putin implicitly offered the oligarchs a deal: You keep what you had before as long you run your companies without looking for government handouts and get out of politics.

Unlike Gusinsky or Berezovsky, Khodorkovsky eagerly accepted this bargain. He and his team kept out of jail and built Yukos into one of Russia's most profitable, most transparent and most Westernized companies. He grew to be first among equals among Russia's other oligarchs. He also began to operate differently than the rest, establishing his own foundations, charitable causes and think tanks. In this election year, he also openly donated money to two of Russia's largest political parties, Yabloko and the Communists. Khodorkovsky calculated that all this fell within the bounds of the implicit pact between the Putin administration and the oligarchs.

Last week's arrest, and the prosecutors' questioning of Khodorkovsky, suggest that the president interprets the pact differently. Khodorkovsky's economic power and political ambitions threatened Putin. So the president changed the rules of the game. Economic deals of the past once thought to be beyond scrutiny are now suddenly in question. If there are now new rules, then the alleged claim against Lebedev -- that he illegally acquired assets in the 1994 privatization of the Apatit fertilizer company -- or similar ones, could be leveled against nearly every businessman who has operated in Russia since the early 1990s.

If these new informal rules are being remade to scare Khodorkovsky away from politics, then the arrest of Lebedev is even more sobering. It means that Russians are not allowed to try to influence electoral outcomes -- an essential feature of even the most minimal democracy. Of course, oil tycoons should not be allowed to deploy their financial resources to skew the electoral playing field. But the enforcement of campaign finance laws is the tool that most democracies use to address this problem, not random arrest.

Arbitrary rule by the state is not only undemocratic. It's bad for business. A state that isn't constrained by checks and balances, the rule of law, the scrutiny of an independent media or the will of the voters is unpredictable at best, predatory at worst.

Two weeks ago, Lebedev probably would have argued that Putin's economic accomplishments outweighed its democratic failures. Today, he probably has a different view. So should the rest of us.

Michael McFaul is a Hoover fellow and associate professor of political science at Stanford University, and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This comment appeared in Wednesday's edition of The Wall Street Journal.