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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Happy New Year for Putin's Russia?

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Whether we look at politics, economics or the structure of the state, the main thrust in 2004 was to strengthen the president and the government in pursuit of so-called authoritarian modernization. Authoritarian modernization, as President Vladimir Putin is implementing it, aims to reinforce the state and speed up economic development. Yet these perhaps noble goals are being pursued in very contradictory ways.

So what are the main components of Putin's policy?

In 2004, the authorities continued to clamp down on freedom of speech and apply significant political pressure to the media. As a result, not a single live political television program is left on Russia's airwaves, and serious discussion of topics like the terrorist attack in Beslan or the Yuganskneftegaz auction is explicitly prohibited.

Russians have also been increasingly deprived of their freedom to make political choices. The authorities have created intolerable conditions for political parties, made absurd membership demands and insisted that every member of every political party be registered with various government organizations -- and that these members give their passport details and home addresses to authorities. The state has effectively banned live political debates that would help voters evaluate various candidates' points of view. Finally, the government has done away with direct election of governors. The minimum requirements for fair elections -- political party financing that is independent of the presidential administration, independent media and an independent judicial system -- no longer exist in Russia.

On a similar note, the authorities in 2004 continued passing laws that stomp out even the first signs of civil protest and marginalize any political opposition. These laws, as mentioned above, encourage censorship and do not allow independent political and civil organizations to function properly. The movement to limit freedom of speech on one hand and the activities of these organizations on the other encourages the depoliticization of the public discourse and results in the brainwashing of the public. Television programs now increasingly show the fuzzy political stereotypes of Russia's remote past.

While smothering any outside criticism or influence, the authorities in 2004 have increasingly rejected the notion of the division of power. The president has made the parliament, the judiciary, the entire executive branch and even the business community beholden to his influence and put them under his administration's strict control. All outside monitoring or checks and balances are out of the question. This means state security organizations, law enforcement agencies and the secret service can completely abandon any pretence of transparency. It furthermore demands that power be centralized as much as possible, which is undermining federalism.

In 2004, for the first time in the past 20 years, the authorities used threats, both real and fictional, to create states of emergency whenever possible and declare their political opponents enemies, "fifth columns" or traitors. At the same time, they constantly alluded to mysterious unnamed foreign powers threatening Russia. These external threats are one of the justifications for the government's imperialist policy in the near-abroad.

In the economic sphere, the government has set up clannish, pseudo-state-owned absolute control over business and private initiative. At the same time, the authorities have maintained Russia's semi-criminal oligarchic economic system with the same extremely unstable and completely nontransparent property rights that have existed since the mid-1990s. This system allows the state to persecute businesspeople and selectively apply methods of legal and political repression to redistribute property. This is exactly what happened with Yukos and the fraudulent sale of its main production unit, Yuganskneftegaz.

Meanwhile, the government has also implemented a series of measures to limit the influx of foreign investment. The authorities seem convinced that their political independence can only be protected by means of economic isolation.

Yet the Russian government in 2004 strove to create an image of Russia abroad as a modern nation and a worthy partner for developed countries. They have also permitted a handful of government officials and individuals in the presidential administration to express disagreement with the president's general line. As proof of the pluralism within the government, these critics were allowed to keep their jobs.

These goals and actions make up Putin's brand of authoritarianism in today's multipolar world. The Russian bureaucracy, commonly blamed for all the nation's woes, is in truth only sincerely, if perhaps a bit too enthusiastically, carrying out the president's decrees and making his political plans a reality.

The president and his men believe that they will be able to keep Russia safe and whole using these methods. They think they will be able to create a modern economy and launch an economic breakthrough based on Russian resources in advanced and highly competitive technologies. Finally, they are convinced they will succeed in creating an up-to-date and efficient military and strong intelligence organizations. It will never happen with such a policy.

Yet 2004, the year when the authoritarian system began to function in all its glory, demonstrated that the system has not been able to address any of the problems confronting Russia today. On the contrary, matters have gotten worse on almost all fronts: the economy and business, social and domestic politics and security and foreign policy. All in all, according to a study by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the quality of life declined in 2004. Russia now ranks 105th out of 111 countries.

Furthermore, last year demonstrated beyond a doubt that the political direction implemented by Putin has led to serious internal instability, accompanied by obvious failures in both domestic and foreign policy, a disoriented elite and a lack of ideas and people who can come up with and implement good ideas. The paralyzing atmosphere of insecurity and fear has intensified. Authoritarianism has come into irreconcilable conflict with 21st-century modernization.

Similar tendencies brought the Soviet Union crashing down only recently. The artificial restoration and reinforcement of these tendencies is creating the preconditions for continuing this process of collapse. The authorities do not see such possible consequences.

Yet the elements of the policy of the current administration are not mistakes or misunderstandings. These are not bureaucrats abusing the system or individual incidences of excess on the path to a "stronger state." They are part of a conscious and thought-out political plan.

Thus, the bottom line for 2004 was increased authoritarianism and demodernization. Russia could get out of this mess by abiding consistently by its own constitution. The only force capable of making the clique in power do so is the people.

Am I optimistic? Yes, but not this year.

Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the Yabloko party, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.