As the year comes towards a close, the perpetuation of dictatorship is an increasing danger to world order. It is a miserable comment on human nature that so many repulsive characters in the whole range of countries and cultures are willing and eager to commit whatever crimes are necessary to grab and retain power. Alas, nothing but self-serving thuggery and lying is to be expected from the likes of Ahmadinejad, Chavez, Mugabe, or Bashar al-Assad. Hosni Mubarak and Kim Jong-Il risk disorder, perhaps revolution or war, to have their sons succeed them. Ahead of elections, Turkish prime minister Erdogan is busy inventing conspiracies and putting possible opponents on trial. The Palestinian leaders of the rival PLO and Hamas have both decided that legitimacy and electoral consent is irrelevant to them. In Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko has just fixed reelection, further arresting seven of the nine opposition candidates and beating some of them in public so badly that they had to be taken to hospital.
Vladimir Putin outdoes this ghastly crew. Wikileaks reports American diplomats describing Russia as “a mafia state.” More ominously than that, Putin has devised what can only be called the civilianizing of Communism, that is to say projecting the power of Russia without the benefit of the Party and its ideology of Marxism-Leninism. Stalin and later general secretaries knew they were criminals but believed their crimes had political and philosophical justification. Putin continues their actual practices, rigging his position in the Kremlin, promulgating a bogus constitution and holding elections whose results have long been predetermined and have nothing to do with genuine representation. He too orders the elimination, by murder if need be, of whoever stands in his way. But it is novel, and in its horrible way inventive, that he fosters crime without the pretence of ideology, but rather as though it were a normal function of society, and merely the obvious trappings of holding power.
The Communists used to pursue and kill those of their number who defected abroad, like Walter Krivitsky. Putin seems to have inspired the murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko, and certainly protected the agents actually accused of the deed. It turns out that there are as many Russian spies in Britain as there were during the Cold War, and they are being deported now as then. Under Putin’s regime, something like thirty journalists have been murdered, and many more left crippled by attackers in the street. Nobody has been brought to trial for any of this. Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer and adviser to American investors, accused some prominent people of large-scale swindling, only to be arrested himself on false charges, and tortured to death in prison. Those responsible have been rewarded and promoted.
The case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky is every bit as sinister. An oligarch among oligarchs, he built the oil company Yukos and became the richest man in Russia. His mistake was to ignore Putin’s warning to stay out of politics. When Khodorkovsky backed various democratic initiatives, Putin confiscated Yukos and got him a long prison sentence in Siberia. Now that Putin is busy arranging to stay in power until 2020, he has arranged to extend for years the prison sentence Khodorkovsky is already serving and so make sure he cannot have any political influence. A handful of brave spirits demonstrated outside the court room against Putin and this commission of injustice.
The difference from the Stalinist show trials lies in the accusation that Khodorkovsky is guilty not of treason but of tax evasion. “Thieves should be behind bars,” Putin told a press conference with a straight face. This is rich. Property laws in Russia depend on what he wants. Like any Communist Party general secretary, he decides who is to be allowed to own what, and he himself, rising from modest origins through the ranks of the secret police, is generally supposed to have a personal fortune of $40 billion dollars. The civilianization of Communism is in every sense a paying proposition, and dictators everywhere will no doubt be studying the technique.