Vladimir Putin

Russian President Putin flaunts his unfettered powers

Russian president shows that he alone controls the levers of government

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 5:04am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 5:04am

President Vladimir Putin's freeing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's best-known prisoner, by swift, personal fiat capped a remarkable string of single-handed decisions of late.

On Tuesday, he outmanoeuvred the West for sway over financially troubled Ukraine with a unilateral decision to provide US$15 billion in loans. On Wednesday, at his direction, the parliament passed an amnesty bill that could free thousands of prisoners. On Friday, he pardoned Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos oil tycoon and onetime aspiring political rival.

That was just last week.

Earlier this month, Putin shocked Moscow's political and media circles with a surprise announcement that he would remake RIA-Novosti, the semi-independent state news agency, under the direction of a Kremlin loyalist. The decisions demonstrate Putin's singular ability not only to wield executive power but also to bend the legislative and judicial branches of government to his will, and to exert heavy control over the Russian news media.

"What we are seeing is a president who has no limits on his power in a country that never was democratic, that never had anything called a balance of power - where one of the estates could balance the power of another," said Vladimir Posner, one of Russia's most prominent television journalists, with his own nightly show on Channel One, the premiere government-controlled station. "There is no Fourth Estate," he said.

Yet all of his recent moves carry serious risks. Releasing Khodorkovsky could well set loose a vengeful rival, with the money and will to do everything possible to force Putin from power.

The bailout of Ukraine could easily turn into a financial debacle, exacerbating Russia's own economic problems, should Ukraine default.

And scrapping RIA-Novosti, a respected news agency, in favour of a replacement already being derided as a Soviet-style propaganda arm, could undermine the credibility needed to cultivate the public image that Putin has sought for Russia as a re-ascendant power.

Supporters of Putin say that his actions reflect sure-footed pursuit of a plan to build a greater Russia, evidenced by mega vanity projects like the Sochi Olympics that will burnish the image of the president and his country.

Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Centre, said the pardon was not evidence of Putin's seeking to improve his image abroad, but rather his satisfaction that Khodorkovsky's pardon request was an admission of guilt.

"What has happened with Khodorkovsky is the demonstration of the absolute power of one man in the Kremlin who enjoys his omnipotence and has found one more way to demonstrate it," she wrote in a commentary.