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See No Evil in Moscow By: Bill Steigerwald
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, March 17, 2008

Look out for Mother Russia. The nation that emerged from the ruins of communism is not as dangerous to the world or as nasty to its own people as the old Soviet Union. But a new book by Edward Lucas, former Moscow bureau chief of The Economist, warns that Vladimir Putin and the ex-KGB thugs running oil-rich Russia have stifled the freedom of their citizens and turned their country into a menacing bully. I recently talked to Lucas in London by phone about his book The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West.

Q: What is your 60-second sound-bite description of what your book is about?
A: We’ve been too complacent about Russia too long. The trajectory is ominous and this is a threat not only to Russians, who suffer under an authoritarian regime, but also to the countries of Eastern Europe, where Russia is pushing back hard, using money rather than military, but still very effectively; and also to us in the West as well.

Q: When you say “the Kremlin is menacing the West” in the title of your United Kingdom edition, who and what do you mean by Kremlin?
A: When I say “Kremlin,” I mean the ex-KGB people who run Russia. They took piece-by-piece in the 1990s, when the attempt to liquidate the old KGB failed. Mr. Putin came back as prime minister in 1999, when the Yeltsin regime was on its last legs, and then as president in 2000, and that’s really the first time in Russian history that the secret police have actually run the country. That’s had several bad, I would say even deplorable, effects.

Q: Such as?
A: First of all, it’s authoritarianism. We’ve seen the hollowing out and crippling and in some cases the destruction of all the institutions that bring the rule of law and political freedom. The media that really matters, i.e., television, is very closely controlled by the Kremlin. The legislative branch is turned into just a mere sounding board for the executive branch, whereas in the Yeltsin years it was rambunctious and independent if quite corrupt. It had shortcomings in other ways, but still this is a bad development. Individual freedom is much less. We have an extremism law that criminalizes dissent and the rules for nongovernmental organizations have been tightened. Although Russians live a great deal better than they used to, because living standards have shot up and life is a lot more stable and predictable, it’s also a lot less free.

Q: Is Putin the problem or is he just the current boss of a group of KGB guys that’s much bigger than he is?
A: I’d think very much the latter. Putin exemplifies the way in which business and political and secret-service power are fused into one in Russia, so the same people who run Russia also own it. You see police tactics such as bugging and bribery and blackmail to get what they want.

Q: What do the Russian people themselves have to fear the most from the Kremlin?
A: The worst legacy of the Putin years is that it stopped Russia from being where it belongs, which is in what one might call “The Greater West.” They’ve darkened Russia’s image abroad so that the country is seen as a corrupt, sinister bully in many eyes. They’ve also failed to create the sort of institutions that you need to have a really modern economy. Russia is a paradox. Now it has some very successful companies which are vaguely competitive, though it is existing against a background of Third World institutions -- administrations of justice, police, tax administration, the bureaucracy generally. If anything, these have been going backwards in some respects rather than forward. The courts are less independent now than they were during the Yeltsin period, and that’s a pity.

Q: Is there an easy way to rank Russia in the rankings of despotic nations? Are the Russian people more or less free than the Chinese people or the Saudis, for instance?
A: They’re probably more free than the Saudis. For a start, women have far more social freedom in Russia. Overall most Russians feel Putin has done a pretty good job because they remember the 1990s not as a time of freedom when the beginnings of democracy and capitalism were built on the ruins of communism, but as a time of chaos and national humiliation when their country collapsed, as they see it. Wages and salaries were paid very late, if at all, and crooked tycoons grabbed most of the country’s prime assets in oil and gas and other natural resources. They would feel that the 1990s was a disastrous experiment which didn’t work. And Putin has added a sinister twist to that, which is to say that it was all the West’s fault, that the 1990s was something the West sort of inflicted on Russia to weaken it. I think that is quite unfair. But it helps him to justify both his xenophobia and authoritarianism.

Q: What do Putin and his gang want? To re-establish the old Soviet Union, exert economic influence over all of Europe, be a superpower again?
A: They certainly don’t want to re-establish the old Soviet Union because they were there when it collapsed and they know it didn’t work. So instead of going for the 100 percent control, which is what the Soviet Union attempted, they are going for 80 percent control. So as long as you control the television, you don’t need to worry about the newspapers, would be one example. They control the commanding heights of the economy but they have no desire to control small business, which was of course illegal in the Soviet Union.

They don’t want to re-conquer Eastern Europe by military means because they know that doesn’t work. But it’s much more effective to use a mixture of energy blackmail and cash. As far as the West is concerned, they want to “finlandize” us -- rather as Finland became a kind of neutral, rather impotent country during the Cold War, they want the kind of moral findlandization of the West, where they buy their way into our institutions so that we are no longer able to resist them.

Q: Would that “finlandization” be the single biggest threat Russia poses to the West?
A: I think it’s the threat that Russia poses right now. It’s quite possible that Russia is going to be weaker and nastier in the years ahead, because the ex-KGB people at the Kremlin have really been quite incompetent on developing the new infrastructure and public services and modernization generally that Russia needs. And the demographic picture is still very bad. Every minute four Russians die and only three are born, so that’s looking pretty bad.

I’m not saying that this is going to continue just as it is. But at the moment, the thing we should worry about is the way in which they have been able to batter down our regulatory standards and attempts at good governance using the weapon of money. In capital markets, for example, there’s a race to the bottom where the New York Stock Exchange says to a Russian company, “You can’t list here,” and then the London Stock Exchange says, “You can come here. We’re much more flexible.” And then maybe some continental European stock exchange is even more flexible, and that enables the Russians to get pretty much what they want simply by paying for it.

Q: Pat Buchanan and others here would say the West has ticked off Russia by doing things like letting Eastern European countries into NATO. Does Russia have a legitimate reason to be annoyed at us?
A: We have to distinguish between things that Russia is truly and justifiably annoyed about and things which are more manufactured hysterics. Now in terms of threats to Russia’s security, China is far bigger than anything NATO even could do, let alone does. So I think I would discount Russian complaints about that, particularly as it’s the Russian opposition to NATO expansion that’s fueled this. The more Russia says these former Captive Nations can’t join NATO, the more they want to join and the more we feel obliged to let them in -- so there is a sort of paradox there. I think where Russia does have a point is on strategic nuclear weapons in space. Russia is still the second power after the United States and this administration has been rather cavalier, to put it mildly, in its treatment of Russia on that. We tore up the ABM treaty and didn’t launch proper talks on a new big treaty on nuclear weapons. It would be in America’s interest to have deep cuts on both sides and rough parity, because dominance in nuclear weapons doesn’t make you safer, it just makes the other guy twitchier and therefore potentially more risky.

Q: What do you think the U.S. or the West should do to show Putin we won’t let him get away with some of this stuff?
A: The most important thing is that we need to regain the moral high ground. We had at the end of the last Cold War great moral authority. Our system not only worked but it was freer and fairer and kinder and more attractive than the Soviet system, which had hit bankruptcy in every way. I think we have lost a lot of that. So even if Russians think their own system of soft-authoritarianism with a semi-state-run economy that is not running pretty well, they don’t necessarily look to us and say the West is doing it better. So that’s the first thing -- get our own house in order.

I think secondly we should engage with Russia very clearly on nukes in space, as I said earlier, and thirdly I think we have to make some very tough moves on democracy. So we have to say to the Russians, “You cannot come to the G-8 if the G-8 is a democracies club. If it’s a club of big countries, that’s fine, but that’s different.”

I think we also have to clean up our financial markets and stop this race to the bottom, which I think is so scandalous. We have to say that all the countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which remains a rich country club, have to have the same standards on beneficial ownership and related-party transactions, which a lot of these bilgy Russian companies couldn’t meet.

Q: What are the consequences if we don’t get on a better footing with Russia?
A: The old Cold War risked nuclear obliteration or the triumph of communist rule internationally, and we’re not facing those. But we are facing the loss of our allies in Eastern Europe, for a start, because Russia is pushing back hard there. We face the end of the Atlantic Alliance, with Europe and America going off in different directions. We face, I think most gravely, this kind of moral findlandization, where Russia by paying the right lobbyists and the right law firms in America or by putting money in the right political parties and paying the right politicians in Europe, pretty much gets what it wants and we lose the self-confidence that we used to have that we live in a free and law-governed society.

Bill Steigerwald is the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's associate editor. Call him at (412) 320-7983. E-mail him at: bsteigerwald@tribweb.com.

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