The death by poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy turned regime critique, has raised anew questions concerning the direction of reform in Russia. The real question is not, however, if Russia is an authoritarian regime. It is. During the Yeltsin era, there were two sources of checks and balances on the power of the president. The first was the oligarchs, the small group of immensely wealthy individuals who had managed by cunning and personal position to seize most of the country’s wealth following the collapse of communist rule and state ownership of property. The second group exercising a check on the president was the regional governors. Yeltsin had to bargain with both in order to arrive at policy. Not so for Putin. He has managed to cow the oligarchs and reign in the governors. His power is unchecked, and Russia is an authoritarian state.
But the Soviet Union was more than an authoritarian state; it was a totalitarian state in which no opposition could be voiced. That has thus far not been the case in Russia where opposition politicians frequently voice criticism and citizens feel free to protest. Litvinenko was an outspoken critique who, although he was abroad, was a symbol of protest. It may well be that Putin decided it was time to send the message that such voices will no longer be tolerated. The news that Yegor Gaidar, a former prime minister and an opposition leader, may have also been poisoned this week while abroad in Ireland, if true, increases such suspicions. Russia may be entering the next phase – the return of the totalitarian state. If so, we can expect more crackdowns on leading opposition voices. The public will get the message in due time, and Russia will return to being a very quiet country indeed.