Russia retreats as Putin gets richer

David Frum

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

KAI RYSSDAL: Time Magazine announced its Person of the Year today. Russian President Vladimir Putin beat out Al Gore, J.K. Rowling, Chinese President Hu Jintao and General David Petraeus for the honor. To quote the magazine, "Putin has put his country back on the map." Commentator David Frum agrees with that. But he says Putin is driving Russia to a dangerous place.


DAVID FRUM: Vladimir Putin has wielded increasingly absolute power in Russia for a decade. And now he seems likely to wield it for many years to come.

Putin's term as president was scheduled to end this spring. But for some time, it has been apparent that things would not end so neatly.

In heavily manipulated elections this month, Putin's party, United Russia, won a huge majority in the Russian parliament. This week, Putin's handpicked president designate requested that Putin take the job of prime minister, at the head of this majority. Putin agreed.

Things have a way of working out like this for Vladimir Putin. Consider the maneuvers that brought him to power in the first place. In 1998, Putin was named to head the Russian security police, the successors to the KGB. Soon, a series of humiliating or scandalous leaks disgraced leading Russian politicians, from President Yeltsin down. Then, in August 1999, Putin rose from control of the secret police to control of the whole Russian state.

One morning, President Yeltsin named Putin as one of three deputy prime ministers. The government of the moment that same day abruptly resigned, leaving Putin as sole acting prime minister. Later on that same day, Yeltsin declared that he wished to see Putin succeed him. Before nightfall, Putin unveiled his own presidential campaign.

Six months later, Putin became acting president. Putin granted Yeltsin and his family immunity from prosecution.

Shortly before the 2007 parliamentary elections, Putin filed an official disclosure form, listing cash assets of about $120,000. But Swedish economist Anders Aslund, generally one of the best-informed Russia watchers in the West, this week floated an estimate that Putin's personal fortune may amount to $40 billion. Who's right? Who knows?

Russia, which once seemed to be evolving into something like a normal country, has retreated into enigma and authoritarianism.

Political dissidents are again dying mysterious deaths. Threats again issue against Russia's neighbors.

This is President Putin's legacy -- and Prime Minister Putin's inheritance.

RYSSDAL: David Frum is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He's also an advisor to Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign.

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