MOSCOW, Dec. 31 (UPI) -- Three years ago, when Vladimir Putin was elected president, Russia was haunted by what was called the "2003 Crisis." This was the year when Russia faced a massive $$@$!17 billion foreign debt bill and predictions the country's infrastructure was on the brink of collapse. The year that is about to end witnessed Russia pay its foreign debt obligations with ease, with little indication its physical state is any worse off than it was three years ago.
Contrary to these grave predictions, the year was a success for Russia. Although the word success is relative, it needs to be understood in terms of what Putin has accomplished as president and his vision for Russia.
The Bolsheviks had a slogan that is appropriately applied to Putin and his core supporters who are from the security forces: "organizing victories."
Organizing victories for the Bolsheviks meant applying all "administrative resources" available to achieve specific goals -- and failure was never an option. Putin's Kremlin has adopted the same political principle.
Early in Putin's presidency, oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky -- both now in exile -- were on the receiving end of Kremlin organized victories, having fallen out with Putin. In 2003, Russia's richest man, former Yukos Chief Executive Officer Mikhail Khordorkovsky, became the target of an ongoing victory organized by members of the security forces for the same reason.
The media has unfortunately characterized the attacks on these men as something personal. Indeed, Berezovsky, Gusinsky, Khordorkovsky may not like the Russian president (and visa-versa), but the displeasure all three have received from the Kremlin should be understood through the prism of what Putin is establishing in Russia. Putin's agenda, made crystal clear this year, is to pursue two fundamental goals: statism and social justice.
Putin's statism is intolerant of a privately owned and independent electronic media, which made Berezovsky and Gusinsky targets for an "organized victory" to recapture the electronic media for the Kremlin. Criticism of Putin now is almost non-existent. Criticism of the regime is allowed, but only criticism that creates the impression that criticism is tolerated. This does not mean the Kremlin is necessarily against freedom of speech. Most likely it is afraid of freedom of speech -- a concept that was sold to the highest bidder until the Kremlin crushed this practice.
The enormous wealth of Khodorkovsky, a principle shareholder in Yukos and under arrest facing charges of tax evasion and fraud, is 2003's most glaring example of Putin's pursuit of social justice. Tens of millions of Russians are outraged that so few individuals control large swaths of country's rich natural resource base.
Arresting Khodorkovsky (and his shares in Yukos) sent the signal that those who became "accidentally rich" as a result of the privatization of state assets in the 1990s will now be forced to be more socially minded. To become more socially minded means spreading the wealth and payment of significantly higher taxes. Taxation, instead of re-privatization, is the Kremlin's ploy to essentially exhort wealth from the winners of the 1990s.
The pursuit of statism and social justice was clearly seen in the political agenda this year as well. The most important victory organized for Putin in 2003, either through hook or crook, was the election of a parliament that will follow whatever orders it is given by the presidential administration.
There was a "2003 Crisis", but had nothing to do with foreign debt payments or the country's infrastructure. This crisis of this year was to end the cold war between the Kremlin and those oligarchs who believed (and behaved) as if they were free agents. Putin ended the truce he made with the oligarchs in 2000 and has effectively informed the country's bureaucracy that it has been given notice to end its practices of bribery and extortion of the business community.
In a way, the Kremlin should be commended for its efforts to strengthen the state after its near collapse during the Boris Yeltsin years. Strengthening the state is a powerful and clearly popular proposition for most Russians. What is an obvious concern is whether Putin's understanding of statism and social justice will, in the longer run, create the future he desires for Russia.
What is missing on Putin's agenda is the rule of law, something he calls the "dictatorship of the law." There are not the same. Dictatorship of the law is akin to "dictatorship of the proletariat," with "cadres are always right." Today's cadres are the security forces that surround Putin. Organizing a victory for the rule of law or dictatorship of law is incomparably more difficult than destroying individuals who are deemed to be barriers hindering Kremlin goals. Law is not about the actions of certain individuals; it is about how the state applies it to all citizens.
Knowing what is best for the people has traditionally been one of the greatest failings of Russia's political elite. Putin appears to be the latest heir to this tradition. HEADER:(Peter Lavelle is a UPI Moscow-based analyst and author of the electronic newsletter Untimely Thoughts - untimely-thoughts.com)