Andrew Jack could hardly have picked a better time to come out with a book on Vladimir Putin. In the past two months, the Russian president has faced the worst string of terror attacks ever to hit Russian soil, from the coordinated bombings of two commercial aircraft to the Beslan school siege. He's responded with a stunning array of repressive measures aimed at tightening his already firm grip on power. Jack's book, "Inside Putin's Russia: Can There Be Reform Without Democracy?" (362 pages. Oxford) was written before the latest crackdowns. But it helps contextualize some of the new concerns about Putin's leadership and about whether Russia, once seemingly on the path to democracy, is lurching instead toward dictatorship. "Today, there are chill breezes returning from the past," writes Jack, Moscow bureau chief of the Financial Times.
Instead of echoing these dire warnings about Russia's future, Jack puts the president's moves into perspective. "Russia under Putin remains far from the police state that operated under Brezhnev, let alone Stalin," he writes. "His 'liberal authoritarian' regime is mixing Soviet with distinctly post-Soviet themes to create something new." Jack also shows why some degree of centralization was necessary to restore order after Boris Yeltsin's chaotic regime and to ensure the country's economic and political development. Under Yeltsin, "there was certainly pluralism," he writes. "But there was also sclerosis, with resolutions passed but ignored, and many reform projects simply not discussed at all." Under Putin, the Parliament drove through an unprecedented number of laws in his first four years, including tax cuts and other measures that helped streamline the creation of new businesses.
Many of these laws helped usher in Russia's economic boom. Though there are fears that too much of the country's wealth is tied up in oil, Jack reminds us how diversified Russian business has grown. Take the dairy and fruit-juice giant Wimm-Bill-Dann, which started from scratch and developed into one of the country's most successful companies, now listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
But the real highlights of the book are the passages where Jack describes how Moscow has changed since he first arrived in 1998. Back then, amid acute product shortages, a head of lettuce was tough to find. Now upscale supermarkets and marble-clad shopping centers line the boulevards. New restaurants open almost daily, from high-end eateries like Sirena, where fish swim beneath clients' feet in a huge aquarium, to inexpensive chains. "In a striking reversal over the past few years," writes Jack, "Western expatriates are often conspicuous in Moscow today because they are dressed more shabbily than the locals."
Where will Russia go from here? Jack predicts: "There are few signs so far that either growth or reform will be accompanied any time soon by much greater democracy." Since then, the outlook has grown darker still. Perhaps, he theorizes, Putin will aim to minimize further disruption while continuing to develop Russia's economy. For now, that may be the best Russians can hope for.