Sunday, November 02, 2003

Guardian Unlimited Politics | Comment | The real Putin

You know Putin's in serious trouble when even the editorial staff of the Guardian, that scourge of capitalist exploiters everywhere, finds his actions difficult to stomach:

Who does Vladimir Putin think he is? Is he the autocratic former KGB man or the would-be reformer and liberaliser of Russia? Is he the westward leaning ally of President Bush and Tony Blair, or someone whose real affection is for the bad old days of the Soviet Union? In the aftermath of the Yukos affair and the arrest of Russia's richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the question needs answering. Now is crunch-time for Mr Putin. He must decide who he wants to be.


Madeleine Albright, the former US Secretary of State, has said of Mr Putin that he has 'two distinct strands' to his personality and political ambitions. A harsher assessment is that the more authoritarian strand has always triumphed and that the reformist side shown to the likes of Tony Blair and George Bush is just a plausible front displayed by an effective spy. On the evidence of last week, the real Mr Putin is that of the brutal Chechen war, a man who greeted the sinking of the Kursk without emotion, and who has kept a stranglehold on Russia's media freedoms.

Mr Putin can no longer have it both ways. His arrest of the one remaining oligarch to retain political ambitions, and democratic ones at that, presents a challenge to countries such as the US and the UK which have received and feted him as a reformer while quietly ignoring his troops' excesses in Chechnya. If Mr Putin opts for the authoritarian path, then it is time for London and Washington to reassess relations.