NEW YORK — 'I don't want to participate in the destruction of Russia," Boris A. Berezovsky said last week, explaining his decision to step down from the Russian parliament.
It's a bit late for that. Berezovsky has already done his personal best to ruin that unhappy land. As one of the richest and most successful of the so-called "oligarchs" who joined in the decade-long orgy of looting that wrecked the economy while creating a handful of billionaires and 50 million paupers in the Russia of former President Boris N. Yeltsin, Berezovsky's place in the annals of Russian destruction is sure.
But now, with President Vladimir V. Putin's tax police and prosecutors raiding one oligarch after another, and with his loyal political minions ramming one bill after another through the Russian Duma, the new Russian president poses serious questions for everyone concerned about Russia's future. In particular, as Putin steps into the international limelight at the Okinawa G-8 meeting this week, the seven heads of state of the world's leading developed nations are trying to figure out whether Putin's drive to restore central authority in Russia is a personal power play or a sincere effort to stop the chaos.
There's a reason why the leaders of Germany, Japan, the United States and the other G-8 countries are so puzzled by Putin. Whether Putin's goal is to save Russia or re-enslave her, he would have the same steps on his to-do list.
By attacking the once untouchable oligarchs, Putin is serving notice that even rich people must comply with fundamental state laws. Furthermore, he is making sure that, in the future, Russian business will pay taxes. That is really the only way the government can get the funds to do its basic jobs, like keeping hospitals running, paying teachers and getting pension checks to senior citizens on time.
Attacking the oligarchs isn't just a good way to get some money into the coffers. It's excellent politics. Most ordinary Russians bitterly resent Berezovsky and his peers. They are convinced, with some reason, that the privatization of Russian state assets was a dirty and illegal business, and that the current "owners" of Russia's oil and gas fields and its other valuable assets have no valid moral claim to their riches.
The harder Putin cracks down on the oligarchs, the more popular--and more powerful--he will become. This is a political logic Putin's G-8 peers understand; few of them will be surprised if Russian tax officials and prosecutors continue cracking down on the oligarchs.
So far, so good. But here's the rub. If your goal was to create a new and more efficient dictatorship, you would do exactly what Putin is doing. You would scare the oligarchs, confiscating the wealth of some and sparing others. You would fire some of the regional governors, terrify the others, and generally convey the message that crossing the Kremlin could be hazardous to your political health.
If Putin succeeds--if he crushes the oligarchs and disciplines the regions--he won't just be the elected leader of a democratic state. He'll be bigger than that--in effect, he'll be the czar of all the Russias, and nobody and nothing in the whole country will be out of his power.
So the G-8 summiteers are looking at Putin and asking the question Glenda asked Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz": "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?"
The answer is that Putin himself may not know yet what kind of witch he wants to be; and the United States has very little influence over how he decides to rule Russia. As we wait to see the shape of the new Russia that Putin is building, we need to remember a few basic truths.
The first is that whether Putin turns out to be a good witch or a bad witch, it is in the U.S. interest for him to be a strong witch. A weak Russia looks good to a handful of foreign-policy experts who are still fighting the Cold War, but in the real world, the United States needs a strong central government in Moscow. Washington needs a Russian government forceful enough to control any loose nukes floating around, and it wants a Russian government strong and self-confident enough to sign international agreements--and then keep them.
When Putin stopped off in China and North Korea on the way to this week's G-8 summit in Okinawa, some observers worried that Russia was trying to rebuild its international influence as a rival power to the United States.