"A message has been communicated to anyone who wants to speak out against the Kremlin: 'If you do, no matter who you are, where you are, we will find you and we will silence you in the most horrible way possible.'"
Those words come from an interview broadcast on NBC's Dateline on Feb. 26. They were spoken by Paul Joyal, a Washington consultant who studies the former Soviet Union. Joyal was talking about the murder of his friend Alexander Litvinenko, the KGB defector who died painfully in London on Nov. 23 from radiation poisoning.
Four nights after his Dateline interview, Joyal met another prominent KGB defector, Oleg Kalugin, for dinner at a restaurant in downtown Washington. Joyal returned to his home in suburban Maryland about 7:30 pm, stepped out of his car--and was shot in the groin. Neither his wallet nor his briefcase were taken. His shooter has not been found.
Happily, the shooting was not fatal. Ivan Safronov, a military affairs writer for the Russian daily Kommersant, was less fortunate. Safronov had been working on a big story about a secret Russian deal to ship highly advanced Iskander missiles to Syria. The day after the Joyal shooting, Safronov fell out of a fifth story window in Moscow. Safronov is the 89th journalist to have died violently in Russia over the past 10 years.
We do not know how many of those deaths were ordered by the Russian government. (And indeed Joyal's shooting may well have been an ordinary crime.)
But we do know that over the past half dozen years, Vladimir Putin's government has extinguished all of Russia's independent broadcast media and severely curbed most print media.
We do know that Putin has ended elections for local government and centralized all power in the Kremlin.
We do know that he has used administrative powers to seize some of Russia's largest corporations and transfer ownership to his supporters--and to confiscate gas fields leased to foreign investors.
And now we have a clearer idea of how Putin has been able to get away with these dangerous moves toward dictatorship: The Russian people support him.
Last week, the EU-Russia Centre released the results of a major new survey of Russian public opinion.
Only 16 percent of those surveyed identified the "Western model" of democracy as the ideal. More than twice as many, 35 percent, said they "prefer the Soviet system before the 1990s."
Only 10 percent of Russians regarded their country as belonging to the West. 71 percent said that Russia was not part of Europe. Almost half of Russians, 45 percent, regard Europe as a threat.
The pollsters read a series of words to respondents. They asked: Did those words have positive or negative associations. Only 33 percent of Russians had positive associations with the word "freedom." Even the word "democracy" had surprisingly strong negative associations: Up to one quarter of less affluent and less educated Russians associated "democracy" with concepts like (to use the pollsters' words): "chaos, demagoguery and pointless chattering."
The EU-Russia Centre notes that Russians responded much more positively to democracy and freedom in the mid-1990s than they do today. But those first post-Soviet years also suffered a collapse of living standards and political chaos--unleashing Soviet nostalgia in many Russians. Putin's authoritarian rule, by contrast, has coincided with a time of rising prices for Russian oil and gas, and thus with improving living standards.
But this explanation goes only so far. Even in the mid-1990s, only 25 percent of Russians regarded Western democracy as the ideal system for Russia. Russians have been debilitated by 70-plus years of communism into feelings of personal helplessness that leads them to crave a strong boss. Virtually every Russian surveyed, 94 percent, said they felt they had zero influence on events in their country; 82 percent felt they bore no responsibility.
It's as if they are saying: let Putin kill his enemies--there's nothing we can do, and so it's not our fault. As an institution, Russian democracy is dying. Inside the minds of the Russians, it is already dead.
We have no shortage of things to worry about in our troubled world: Islamic extremism, Chinese aggression, European weakness, American isolation. Now add one more. A potentially great power, endowed with vast energy wealth and inheriting a vast nuclear arsenal, is deliberately and with the approval of the majority of its people turning its back on democracy and freedom. Instead of joining the West, Russia is finding its way to dangerous alliances with Iran, Syria, China, and who knows what other sinister forces. This grouping of anti-democratic states is extending its reach around the world--even perhaps to the suburbs of Washington D.C.
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