A Kremlin Cassandra

Posted in Russia | 02-Jan-06 | Source: International Herald Tribune

Andrei Illarionov (L), former Russian President Vladimir Putin's economic adviser.
The resignation of Andrei Illarionov, the top economic adviser to President Vladimir Putin of Russia, was an uncommon gesture of integrity. Its importance to the outside world lay in the ominous verdict on Putin's transformation of Russia that Illarionov pronounced at his departure. This insider's alert ought to be heeded as an authoritative warning about a disfiguring concentration of political and economic power in the hands of Putin and his inner circle.

"This year Russia has become a different country," Illarionov said Dec. 21. "It is no longer a democratic country. It is no longer a free country."

If these generalized criticisms were not enough to provoke a backstage move to force his dismissal, Illarionov went on to denounce Kremlin actions about which Putin's ruling group is known to be extremely defensive.

He described as "swindles of the year" recent notorious takeovers of private energy companies by state-owned outfits. He also crossed a red line by praising the Ukrainian government of President Viktor Yushchenko for annulling the fraudulent sale of a state-owned steel plant to the son-in-law of his corrupt predecessor, Leonid Kuchma, for only $800 million. The plant was then sold to a German company for $4.82 billion.

Illarionov had to know that spotlighting the Putin clique's particular shady deals, and lauding Yushchenko's contrasting honesty, were intolerable transgressions against a Kremlin code of silence. Such knowledge renders his action all the more admirable. As too few office-holders in Western democracies are willing to do, Illarionov was ready to cede his high post for the sake of principle.

When he formally announced his resignation Tuesday, Illarionov used the occasion to warn that the Kremlin insiders' drive to take possession of Russia's oil and natural gas assets has made possible "the selective use of energy as a weapon outside Russia."

He was alluding to punitive price increases for natural gas that Russia had been selling to Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia - former Soviet republics that are now independent countries aligning themselves with the democracies of Europe and America. Putin has also been routing natural gas pipelines to bypass Ukraine and Poland and to bolster a strategic partnership with China.

The Western democracies need to pay careful attention to Illarionov's warning about the Kremlin's "new corporatist model for political, economic, social, public, and international life." He knows what he is talking about, and it sounds like a combustible mixture of nationalism, fascism and gangsterism.