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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Consolidating Power

President Vladimir Putin held an unexpectedly substantive annual news conference last week. It was surprising because, whereas Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko apparently thinks leaders were given tongues in order to keep people in line, Putin, as a former intelligence officer, seems to believe that his should be used to conceal his true motives.

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Every one of Putin's public addresses is conducted like a special operations disinformation campaign designed to confound any possible opponents. Trying to ascertain the president's real views on democracy and the rule of law from these talks is about as pointless as analyzing the trajectory of a missile's flight in order to learn what the pilot who fired it ate for breakfast.

But the press conference was of importance because the questions touched accordingly not only on Putin's plans for the future, but on concrete events: The cancellation of gubernatorial elections, the poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko and the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

But Putin had little factual to say about these topics. In answer to the question: "Which of his enemies murdered Litvinenko?" Putin replied with a tirade rather than a satisfactory answer, saying, "He possessed no [state] secrets. Criminal proceedings were instituted against him for abusing his position as a security services officer by abusing citizens in detention and for smuggling explosives. He was given a three-year suspended sentence and there was no reason for him to flee."

However, even the petty nature of Litvinenko's crimes suggested by this account does not disprove the involvement of Russian special forces in his death; instead, it merely proves that, were they involved, it was a case of inhuman and senseless murder. It is also strange that Litvinenko's photo adorns so many military and police shooting range targets, right beside that of the late Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev.

Putin had at least one more important comment to make: "The position of those in power following the 2008 election should be consolidated and effective," he said. "This is not just a casual remark," he continued, "after all, in the mid-1990s, different branches of government were like the swan, the lobster and the pike of the fable, all pulling in opposite directions, and thus bringing the country to a standstill."

And on this point the Kremlin's gloating over disorder in Georgia and Ukraine demonstrates that what the rest of the world considers democracy's greatest asset, a healthy opposition, Moscow sees as its greatest weakness. Putin's answer illustrated this clearly. From his point of view, the leadership is "unconsolidated" and the government weak if opposition exists. But according to a Western understanding, the presence of an opposition is what defines democracy.

From the Kremlin's point of view, control over society entails the executive authority's control over the courts, the Prosecutor General's Office and the parliament; that is, control over the very institutions that should be independent of the executive branch in a democracy.

In a real democracy, public order is maintained by judges who don't take bribes, police who don't imprison innocent people, and military officers who defend the country without trading in soldiers as a human commodity. In the Kremlin's view, order results when the courts, the parliament and the defense minister, who happens to be Putin's personal friend in this case, all answer to the president. As for how they deal with the masses of humanity entrusted to their care, that is just a personal matter between friends.

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