He may be an economic liberal, but Putin is an Andropov at heart

THE most dangerous man in 20th-century history was neither Stalin nor Hitler, but a relatively unknown despot who ruled the Soviet Union for just 15 months: Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov. If any individual had the potential to precipitate a Third World War it was this ruthless disciple of Stalin. His fortuitous death in 1984 purged that date of its ominous Orwellian significance and the West heaved a sigh of relief.

Andropov has many admirers in Russia today. That is unsurprising: so have Lenin and Stalin. What is disturbing is the fact that the principal guardian of the flame and architect of Andropov’s rehabilitation is the current Russian president, Vladimir Putin. As early as 1999, Putin replaced the memorial plaque to Andropov at secret police headquarters in Moscow which the newly liberated population had torn down in 1991. Earlier this month, to mark the 90th anniversary of Andropov’s birth, a symposium was held in his honour, a school renamed after him and a 10ft statue of him unveiled.

Insofar as the enigmatic president Putin has a role model, clearly it is Yuri Andropov. That sinister insight is now increasingly exercising western analysts. Both men were rooted in the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti), or Committee for State Security. This criminal organisation, previously named the Cheka, NKVD, etc, had a far worse record than the Gestapo. Yuri Andropov, known as ‘The Butcher of Budapest’ for his ruthless suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, was head of the KGB for 15 years. Vladimir Putin was recruited into the KGB during that period and served as an agent of its First Directorate in East Germany. As his recent conduct illustrates, Putin fully absorbed the ethos of the ‘Chekists’ - the name in which the members of the Russian ‘organs of state security’ revel. It was on December 20, ‘Chekists’ Day’, the anniversary of the founding of the secret police by Felix Dzerzhinsky, the renegade Polish aristocrat who executed his own mother to prove his loyalty to the Revolution, that Putin unveiled the restored plaque in honour of Andropov.

The double standards that are a hangover from Cold War fellow travelling in the West protected Putin from significant censure. If Chancellor Schroeder were to unveil a 10ft statue of Himmler, it would be ingenuous to assume such a gesture would be viewed with equal complacency.

A further ominous dimension is lent to the Andropov/Putin symbiosis by the notorious and successful disinformation exercise with which Andropov deceived western appeaseniks on his accession to power. According to this ‘spin’, Andropov was the first Russian ruler since Nicholas II to speak fluent English; he loved jazz and enjoyed anti-rgime jokes. It was all lies: he was an intransigent Cold Warrior whose military shot down a South Korean airliner, killing all 269 people on board - the Soviet Union’s Lockerbie - and who remorselessly prosecuted the war in Afghanistan. The question arises: is Putin also imitating his hero in deluding the West about his character and intentions?

In security policy, as a former head of the FSB, successor body to the KGB, he has effectively restored the anti-dissident Fifth Directorate of the KGB, as the ‘Department for the Protection of the Constitution’. When the old KGB fell apart, many Chekists helped themselves to state funds and adopted new careers in ‘business’ - ie organised crime. Some of Russia’s major companies and banks were founded with KGB cash.

That is why Putin is anxious to attract foreign banks and sideline the more suspect home grown institutions. His desire for economic growth is sincere, whatever his eventual purpose. He has introduced some real reforms: a flat rate of taxation and initiatives on pensions and labour law. This has produced some statistics that the regime likes to trumpet: five years of economic growth, a taming of inflation and a stronger rouble.

Much of the hype, for example Putin’s confident forecast last month that the economy could double by 2010, has the resonance of statistics for tractor production in the Urals Soviet area for 1949. All of Russia’s eggs are still in one basket: 30% of GDP derives from sales of crude oil and natural gas, with the petroleum industry boosted by BP’s $8bn purchase of a 50% stake in the Tyumen oil joint venture. Such profitable business is threatened by higher taxes and by the Putin government’s excessive action against the Yukos Oil Company - the largest listed enterprise in Russia - resulting from a political vendetta against Mikhail Khodorkhovsky, its CEO.

Russian privatisation was carried out in a way that made Railtrack look like a model exercise. As a consequence, by the calculation of Forbes magazine, the 100 richest ‘oligarchs’ have a combined wealth amounting to 25% of their country’s GDP, whereas all the billionaires in America combined only represent 6% of GDP.

In the security sphere, it is business as usual for Putin and the siloviki (his former KGB cronies). The media monitoring agency, Reporters Without Borders, ranks Russia 121st out of 139 countries in terms of press freedom. In 2003 its last independent national television network was ousted by a state-sponsored sports channel. The war in Chechnya is being pursued in the style of Andropov in Afghanistan. No one could reasonably suggest that Russia should be governed along the lines of a Liberal Democrat parish council. That does not excuse either the cult of Andropov or the reduction of freedom in Russia to a level below that of the provisional government from March to November, 1917.

Putin represents a phenomenon now developing much further afield than Russia: the marriage of economic liberalism with oppressive state control. Marxism has become uncoupled from Leninism: the former is dead, the latter rampant. China is another example. In the West it is called ‘political correctness’ (the term was invented by Lenin).

Tyrants no longer have to shoulder the burden of running a command economy: privatisation of enterprise is perfectly acceptable, provided people themselves are nationalised - by regulation, state nannying, identity cards and bans on all activities and opinions deemed ‘incorrect’ by the ruling clique. In this context, the European Union is a streamlined Soviet Union, which will one day converge seamlessly with Putin’s police state, on the road to world government. Liberty has never been more insidiously threatened.