RUSSIAN paranoia is im measurable, with malice toward all and
charity toward none. And outgoing President Vladimir Putin has been an
exemplary Russian, his suspicions of the West intensified by his
vocation as a secret policeman.
We'll have to see if
presidential-election "victor" Dimitri Medvedev shocks his sponsor by
becoming his own man, or just plays the czarina to Putin's Rasputin.
The most striking aspect of Russia's phony election last weekend wasn't
that it was so ham-handedly rigged, but that Putin, Medvedev & Co.
weren't the least bit ashamed of the blatant rigging. It was a
time-trip back to the Soviet heyday that Putin misses so.
only positive thing about the no-real-choice vote is that today's
Kremlin crowd had the restraint to hold down the we-love-Medvedev tally
to 70 percent, rather than the 95 percent-plus demanded by the old
The truth? Russian citizens are content
to be led like sheep. As long as there's a bit more fodder in the
trough than there was yesterday, Russians won't protest against being
herded around: Their primary characteristic over the centuries has been
the determination to avoid responsibility.
It's incomprehensible to us, but most Russians want a good-but-strong czar to make their choices for them. (Oh, and they'd rather not work too hard, thanks.)
I almost wrote that Russia isn't a banana republic - despite its
execution of journalists, the imprisonment of political opponents,
state theft of property, the Kremlin's sponsorship of domestic
terrorism (Stalin's stage-managed murder of Sergei Kirov comes to mind)
and belligerence toward its neighbors.
But I would've been
wrong - not only because Russia isn't a republic of any sort, but
because Putin's Russia is headed for exactly the fate that's gutted so
many developing countries: the crash after the boom.
Despite the toxic purring of its spokesmen abroad, the Russian
Federation isn't diversifying its industrial base, overhauling its
decrepit education system or building the human and material
infrastructure to guarantee it a future beyond energy revenues.
Russia's going through the same it'll-never-end boom cycle that left
one Latin American state after another with a handful of super-rich
citizens, a glut of show-off architecture, hollow militaries in shiny
boots and economies that disintegrated when the one-trick pony died.
Despite the glitz on display in the heart of Moscow, Russia remains a
tragically underdeveloped country. It's Bolivia with Bentleys.
Will President Medvedev change anything after he takes office? Will he disappoint Putin and prove himself more than a puppet?
We can't say. Human beings can surprise the devil out of us all. But,
given that Medvedev's ties to Putin go back decades to a murky past in
St. Petersburg, an outburst of optimism may not be warranted.
The saddest thing of all is that the civilized world wants
to embrace Russia as a constructive partner. But Russians just don't,
won't and can't get it. To Ivan on the street, life's a zero-sum game,
with everybody else determined to steal his sausages.
That characteristic, above all others, keeps Russia in the underdeveloped category.
Well, I've had my say. But, for all my decades of studying Russia and countless visits to that authority-addicted land, I
never suffered under the Kremlin's tyranny, never sat in an East-Bloc
prison and never endured up-close-and-personal secret-police brutality.
So it's useful to listen to someone who did: Vaclav Havel, one
of the very few truly great men of our time, small in physical stature
but so great of heart he forced the Russian bear back into its fouled
I had the honor of meeting Havel last week at NATO headquarters,
where this lifelong advocate of nonviolent resistance stressed the
vital nature of the military alliance.
Havel - the last
president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech
Republic - is a very old 71, a frail survivor of cancer and years in
Communist cells. But he's as passionate as ever about freedom. The
climax of his speech to NATO's military and civilian leaders was a
stark warning about Russia:
"A dictatorship of a fairly new
type is coming into existence to the east of the area under NATO
protection. All basic human and civic freedoms are gradually and
quietly being suppressed under the banner of the aggrieved ideology
that everybody is doing Russia wrong or that they are all covert
"The system of formal democracy and one-party rule
familiar to us from Communist times is being revived. The secret police
is becoming all-powerful. The nation's enormous wealth is passing into
the hands of the powerful or their friends . . .
that is free and has major influence is destroyed in subtle ways . . .
Troublesome people disappear or are mysteriously murdered. Political
murders and even major terrorist operations are never properly
"An enormous nation inhabiting enormous
territory is lapsing into apathy and adapting to the status quo. It is
accepting the propaganda-fed cult of the leader, that is sometimes
reminiscent of the cult of Stalin . . .
"Russia is once more
losing its awareness of where it begins and where it ends . . . as if
it still thought that what once belonged to it will do so for all
Havel summed up: "I believe none of us has the right to
remain silent and pretend . . . that we can't see these things.
Politeness and falsehoods have never yet preserved the peace."
Moscow never got its own Havel. It just got pseudo-Soviets in better-tailored suits. Welcome to the new, old Russia.