All eyes on the Russian drama

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 December, 2003, 12:00am

Russian President Vladimir Putin scored a big victory in the parliamentary election this month as United Russia, the pro-Kremlin party, won almost half the seats in the Duma, the lower house. He is set to win a second term in next March's presidential election.

With little effort, he will be able to muster a two-thirds majority and push through constitutional changes to further consolidate his power - lengthening his term in office and whittling down the power of regional governments.

The Chinese media reported the election and the prospects for Russia with a mixture of awe and worry. Foreign news in China often reflects the concerns of domestic readers: Russia, with its recent communist past and transformation to a market economy, holds up a mirror for China to look at itself.

Russian news has filled the international pages of Chinese newspapers and been discussed on televised panels of experts since late October. That is when Russia's richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was seized at gun-point on his private jet in Siberia. The Chinese public enjoyed watching Mr Putin cutting the powerful oligarch down to size. Khodorkovsky is now jailed on fraud and tax evasion charges.

Khodorkovsky owns Russia's largest oil company, Yukos. It struck a deal with the Chinese state oil company to build an oil pipeline from Angarsk in western Siberia to Daqing in northeastern China.

Khodorkovsky was not admired in China. The sympathetic western press touted his abilities in building a world-class energy company, but in China he was portrayed as an uppity businessman with connections to the Bush White House. In the face-off with the oligarchs, Mr Putin emerged as a strong leader who wanted to undo the legacies of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

It was Yeltsin's privatisation of state assets that gave rise to the hated oligarchical system.

The fact that Khodorkovsky's jailing did no harm to Mr Putin was seen as an oblique admonition for China's leaders to be tough on the new rich and powerful business elite.

Russia's oligarchs and the Chinese super-rich have much in common. A small number of Russians got fabulously rich in the post-communist chaos of the early 1990s, just as China's new business elite made their fortunes in the post-1993 accelerated economic opening.

Now, with the massive sell-off of state assets in China, fears have been raised about the emergence of oligarchs in a system that lacks transparency. The enormous power wielded by the Russian oligarchs, who controlled banks and media outlets, was a lesson not lost on the Chinese.

Mr Putin's autocratic tendencies were explained in the context of Russian history, and his pursuit of Russia's revival as a great nation strikes a sympathetic chord among the Chinese. His consolidation of power was described as giving hope to the Russian people, who have rejected ideology in favour of national development. By controlling the majority in the Duma, Mr Putin could bring 'stability' and 'economic reconstruction' - the same positive words that the Chinese media use for lauding the leadership in Beijing.

But what kind of future is there for Russia once Mr Putin succeeds in de-Yeltsinisation? Some commentators expect that, with the oligarchs subdued, Mr Putin could succeed in diversifying the economy, making it less dependent on the country's natural resources.

In terms of political and social development, they fear that the weakening of opposition in the Duma and the stifling of independent media could push the country back to the twilight days of Imperial Russia, when dissent had no legitimate outlet. This eventually led to upheaval in the revolutions of 1917. Could the commentators be asking the Chinese public to reflect on the situation in their own nation?

Nailene Chou Wiest is a Post correspondent based in Beijing