Potential Putin opponent under investigation: Russian Democracy today

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Former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov is the subject of investigation following accusations of fraud during his tenure as PM.

The news comes soon after Kasyanov has hinted that he is considering standing in the 2008 Presidential elections.

Kasyanov, PM before Vladimir Putin’s surprise dismissal of the entire cabinet in March last year, is predicted by many political commentators to grow into a strong opponent to Putin for the 2008 election.

It has been claimed that the accusations are deliberate Kremlin attempts to derail the liberal’s campaign before it has a chance to begin.

In February Kasyanov openly criticised the government of taking steps away from democracy, following a number of restrictive and authoritarian moves from Putin’s United Russia party in recent years.

The courts are officially independent of the state although it is widely believed that the Kremlin heavily influences judicial proceedings.

Investigations into Kasyanov are only the latest in a line of incidents under Putin where the state has got involved; one only has to glance at the Russian media to see how the Government seeks to control all aspects of life.

Fears have been growing that Putin seeks a return to a Soviet-style state-control of the media, going back to 2001 when the country’s foremost independent television network, NTV, was taken over by the state-owned Gazprom corporation.

NTV director Boris Jordan lost his job in October 2002, only to be replaced with a ex-government official.

Jordan’s dismissal followed Putin’s public condemnation of the station’s live coverage of the Moscow theatre terrorist attack, where 800 hostages were held by Chechen rebels.

Last year the station was dealt another blow to freedom of speech when popular journalist, and outspoken critic of the government, Leonid Parfyonov was sacked for airing a controversial interview with the widow of murdered Chechen rebel leader.

The sacking of Parfyonov was proof that the era of NTV being an independent thorn in the side of the Government has now passed and the state-controlled media that was a hallmark of past totalitarian regimes is now a present feature of Russian society.

This year saw a further example of critics of the Putin government being penalised with the trial and conviction of tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky – who has in the past donated vast sums to opposition parties, particularly those with a pro-western foreign policy.

Khodorkovsky was convicted on charges of embezzlement and fraud but the former head of the oil giant Yukos insists he is a victim of a corrupt Government, as he enters his second month of imprisonment.

The former Yukos chief was handed a nine year sentence, just one year under the maximum for the charges brought, which only makes the possibility that the conviction was politically motivated seem more likely.

This example of authoritarian behaviour sparked outrage across Russia, with opposition MP Irina Khakamada commenting in a Moscow newspaper: “Before our very eyes, with the complete suppression of resistance, a fascist ideology is being formed.”

“The state is everything. The state is the judge, the state decides who is right and who is guilty.”

Even the west has shown concern over the trial and it’s implications for Russian democracy.

George W Bush expressed his unease of the Khodorkovsky trial, suggesting that the Russian tycoon’s fate had already been determined before the final verdict was delivered.

This era of suppressed democracy will not fill Mikhail Kasyanov with hope as the former Prime Minister is accused of corruption and fraud while in office.

The investigation centres on the acquisition of a property in a state-owned Moscow gated community of luxurious apartments on the eve of his dismissal from the cabinet.

News of the case against Kasyanov has been met with doubt from some political analysts, with US Ambassador Alexander Vershbow suggesting concerns that the enquiries are associated with the rumours that Kasyanov will run for President in 2008.

With just one year to go before Putin will chair the G8 meeting, the issue of Russian democracy is one that is in need of addressing.

Officially there may not be any remnants of Russia’s Communist past in Putin’s policies but as time goes on it appears that the route to democracy is being lost in favour of moves to an oppressive centralised authoritarian state.