Free trade is the only freedom Putin knows

When Julia Gillard got the news of her father's death and left the APEC summit in Russia early to return to her family, the host made a point of passing on his condolences.

"President Putin was very anxious to telephone Prime Minister Gillard and he was able to talk to her and that was a source of comfort," according to the Trade Minister, Craig Emerson, who deputised for her.

We have to assume this was Emerson at his diplomatic best, for who could take comfort from Vladimir Putin? The chest-baring former KGB officer leads a government of increasingly ugly repression and cronyism.

Even Madonna noticed the case of Pussy Riot. She had been silent as Russian journalists and human rights activists were mysteriously murdered in recent years and as Putin's party committed electoral fraud.

But the ageing American singer was moved to protest against the two-year jail term for the punk girl band on charges of hooliganism after they staged a protest against Putin in a Russian Orthodox church. The case was widely decried for illustrating the politicisation of the justice system. It was really just an attention-getter for the world for a much wider and deeper turn to authoritarianism under Putin.

Putin circumvented the constitutional ban on remaining in the presidency by installing a puppet president, Dmitry Medvedev, from 2008 to this year. It was a cunning manoeuvre and quite legal.

But even before Putin cast pretence aside and returned to the presidency himself four months ago in a rigged election, the then US defence secretary Robert Gates had lamented that "democracy has disappeared" in Russia.

He said the government was "an oligarchy run by the security services", according to US official cables published by WikiLeaks.

When Putin went to the polls in March, he claimed to have won 63.8 per cent of the vote, but an independent non-government election scrutineer, the Golos Association, found the figure was 50.75 per cent.

The authorities are increasingly intolerant of protest. The tens of thousands who had turned out despite freezing weather to object to the fraudulent December election - one man in the crowd sported a frozen beard dangling icicles - were closely marshalled but tolerated.

When demonstrators turned out to complain about Putin's inauguration in May, the police launched baton attacks, more than 450 protesters were arrested and 17 hospitalised. Putin's spokesman said he regretted the demonstrators had not been treated more harshly.

Since then, tough new laws against protest have been passed by the Duma and opposition leaders' homes have been raided. While one new law has eased the registration of political parties, another forbids the creation of coalitions, effectively preventing the emergence of a united opposition.

The former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, now leader of a pro-democracy group United Civil Front, gives a first-hand account of the treatment of dissenters.

Standing outside the courtroom where the members of Pussy Riot were on trial, he took questions from reporters, when "Suddenly, I was dragged away by a group of police. The men refused to tell me why I was being arrested and shoved me into a police van. When I got up to again ask why I had been detained, things turned violent.

"I was restrained, choked and struck several times by a group of officers before being driven to the police station with dozens of other protesters. After several hours I was released, but not before they told me I was being criminally investigated for assaulting a police officer who claimed I had bitten him.

"In the past, Mr Putin's critics and enemies have been jailed on a wide variety of spurious criminal charges, from fraud to terrorism. But now the masks are off … the leaders of the free world are clearly capable of sleeping through any wake-up call."

There is more to it than that. Putin may be waging repression at home, but he is offering the outside world the sort of economic engagement that companies and governments want to see. This was on display at the APEC summit. The 21-country meeting was held in the Russian Pacific port city of Vladivostok to promote Putin's turn away from a stagnant Europe and towards the vibrant Asia-Pacific.

"The very principle of free trade is undergoing a crisis," Putin wrote in an op-ed published by The Wall Street Journal. "We suggest that the dialogue in Vladivostok focus on freeing up trade and investment flows to stimulate economic growth, taking into account new realities such as Russia's accession to the World Trade Organisation."

This is exactly what Asia-Pacific companies and governments, including Australia's, want to hear. Putin delivered, and chaired a meeting that took some modest but real steps to hold protectionism at bay. Putting Russia's territorial dispute with Tokyo aside, he also gave the go-ahead to a $7 billion new LNG plant in Siberia.

"Putin is impatient to open Russia's window to the East in Vladivostok, emulating Peter the Great, who once opened Russia's window to the West by founding St Petersburg," Kirill Muradov, from the National Research University of Moscow, wrote in East Asian Forum.

By offering the world a liberal trade and investment regime, Putin knows he will be able to deflect any real international action against his repression at home.

The US Republican candidate for the presidency, Mitt Romney, has promised that "Mr Putin will see a little less flexibility and more backbone" in his America, but this is very likely to be empty campaign rhetoric.

The sort of comfort Putin offers is increasingly likely to be of the kind Stalin offered. When the Russian dictator sent bodyguards to his mother's home one day to check on her, she fainted in fright. She presumed her son had sent assassins to kill her.

Peter Hartcher is the international editor.

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