The Russian political opposition's treasured fantasy is the Vladimir Putin abuse of power scandal. There would be a trial, during which a teary-eyed Putin would confess to economic crimes committed. Afterwards, he'd be led off to Siberia in handcuffs. Yet, after nine years as president and two as prime minister of Russia, the opposition's dreams remain unrealized. Putin is firmly ensconced in his ministership, while the opposition's protests are broken up with batons in the streets.
Putin's Mother Theresa imitation drives the opposition crazy. Officially Putin owns only a modest two-bedroom apartment in Saint Petersburg, an old car and a little country house. But the opposition has legitimate grounds for suspicion: if Putin is so indifferent to worldly possessions, why is practically every key economic post filled by one of his pals?
The answer seems obvious. Putin has put Enemy #1, the businessman Khodorkovsky, behind bars, spread leadership positions at gas and oil companies among his nearest and dearest and nationalized a slew of major enterprises, setting himself up, it would seem, for some serious personal enrichment. During the period leading up to the last Russian election in 2008, claims that Putin owned a package of shares from Surgutneftegas, Gazprom, and gas-trader Gunvor -- an opaquely structured company registered in Switzerland, and run by Putin acquaintance (or friend, depending on whom you ask) Gennady Timchenko -- were widely printed in the world media, although they were flatly denied by the Gunvor top brass. According to these reports, allegedly sourced to a Kremlin insider, Putin's personal wealth was something to the tune of 40 billion dollars.
But without real proofs of Putin's hidden riches, the opposition can only wring their hands in horror as polls roll in showing the Russian people's trust in Putin continuing to top 70%.
The situation on the ground, though, may be changing at long last. The opposition is celebrating the reappearance of some incriminating documents that hint at a dark chapter in Putin's life.
It's a story from his youth: at the start of the 90s, having given up working as a spy in East Germany, Putin was chosen by one of the most charismatic leaders of the Perestroika era, Saint Petersburg Mayor Anatolii Sobchak, to be Saint Petersburg's Chairman of the Committee for External Relations. Because of the crisis in the Soviet economy, there was no food in the grocery stores of Saint Petersburg; the Mayor's office was considering introducing ration cards. As a port city, though, Saint Petersburg had access to large quantities of raw materials. A plan to export these resources in exchange for food and consumer products was approved. Committee Head Putin signed the necessary forms and the raw materials began to be exported. But not just any metals were exported, aluminum and the rare-earth metal scandium also poured out of the country in quantities worth millions. But the food never arrived. When the city parliament decided to investigate the matter, it was found that the contracted firms had disappeared quite suddenly, and that even the initial price asked for the raw materials had been intentionally set below market levels.
What follows has more of the taste of a mystery, or even a thriller, than your run-of-the-mill political biography. Marina Salye, the Chairman of the Investigative Commission, writes a report detailing Putin's abuses and hands it over to the prosecutor general and Mayor Sobchak. But, report in hands, the prosecutors don't prosecute, and Sobchak gives Putin a promotion.
Not long after, Putin has become the Prime Minister, and then President of Russia. At which point, Ms. Salye, a PhD and author of a popular book about Russian corruption, departs for the middle of nowhere, and, for the next ten years, lives deep in the provinces, not interacting with journalists. It doesn't escape notice that there's something fishy about such a person disappearing from the scene in this way.
But now, all of a sudden, Salye has unexpectedly broken her silence. In an interview given this month, she tells the whole story in detail, and reveals that she retains not only the report, but also all the documents necessary to prove her case. What's more, copies of these documents can be found online.
Why this new development? Why has Marina Salye suddenly decided to speak out? It's rather mysterious: even though Putin is just the same powerful, important man running the country, a person who has spent ten years, for all intents and purposes, hiding from him, suddenly comes out of the woodwork.
It's possible that Ms. Salye decided to break her silence spontaneously. It's also possible that she did so because someone, promising to guarantee her safety, asked her to. We ought not to forget that Putin's no longer the only major player in Russia, that there's also a president, Medvedev, and that he is becoming more and more accustomed to the taste of power. Around this president an elite dissatisfied with Putin has begun to group. It wouldn't be necessary, mind you, for Medvedev himself to give the summons ordering Salye back to the scene; anyone from his circle who remembered the old story could have taken it upon himself to dig the dirt up again.
But to what end? Well, it's no secret that Putin would like to return to the Kremlin as president in 2010. And, if talk of these documents spreads, and this story from his distant past is a true one, it could discourage him in his presidential ambition. What's more, it seems far from unlikely that additional documents might surface. That a bureaucrat with a clean conscience is an oxymoron is common knowledge.
As for the opposition, it has begun demanding that these allegations be looked into. No matter what comes of it, this is a winning move. If there's no investigation, then this serves to prove Putin's past guilt and his current interference with the judicial system. If there is an investigation, then for the first time in the history of contemporary Russia, Putin will have to testify in court. In which case, it's possible that Putin will become the victim of his own creation -- Medvedev's "successorship" and the power duumvirate.
Putin has often said that Russia has its own unique path toward democracy.
But, perhaps, that unique path is what makes it so easy to imagine the way to make short work of Mr. Putin himself.
Translated from the Russian by Yael Levine.