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Putin's Totalitarian Path By: Frederick W. Stakelbeck Jr.
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, March 09, 2005

During the months leading up to his recent meeting with President Bush in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a verbal offensive, accusing the West of conspiring to isolate Russia from the world community.

Putin’s condemnation of the West has become more frequent and pronounced as international criticism of his presidency has increased. His public display of displeasure concerning the results of the Ukrainian presidential elections, his support of Iran’s  “peaceful” nuclear program, his escalating interference in the Baltic states, and his dismissive attitude toward arms proliferation in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, all point to a re-thinking of the Russian leader’s philosophy toward domestic and foreign policy affairs.

Determined to minimize the West’s democratic influence upon Russia, Putin has increasingly adopted a concept of “multilateralism” – choosing to form strategic bilateral and trilateral alliances. Unfortunately, his new friends include China, Iran and Syria -- known more for their support of terrorism and the ruthless repression of free speech than democracy.


Observers who once hoped Putin would propel Russia into an age of “enlightened liberalism” now find themselves questioning the president’s commitment to democratic ideals and free-market reforms -- both necessary components for a free and stable Russia. “The dismantling of Russia’s nascent democracy has begun,” says Leon Aron, director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.


To gain a better understanding of how Putin has morphed into a potential Western rival, a review of his recent actions is necessary.


Domestic Policy


On the domestic front, the gradual consolidation of Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule is the most troubling development for Western observers. Putin-orchestrated trials against oligarchs Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky designed to increase state control of the media and the Russian economy have created a firestorm of criticism from the West, as well as prominent Russians such as former President Mikhail Gorbechev. The December removal of Andrei Illarionov due to his opposition to Putin’s decision to personally appoint rather than elect provincial governors only added to claims of an ongoing Putin power-grab.


The Chechen conflict continues to plague Putin, with recent efforts to reach a peaceful solution to the conflict failing miserably. Support for Putin at home continues to wane amid persistent allegations of a government crackdown on human rights and liberal dissent. According to results of a poll released in February by the Public Opinion Foundation, only 42 percent of Russians say they trust Putin -- a five percent decline since September. A separate poll reported that 67 percent of Russian citizens are willing to take “action” if necessary to defend their rights. This is a clear signal that the Russian people are becoming increasingly nervous about Putin’s growing power.


Early democratic reforms have inexplicitly stalled during Putin’s second term, prompting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to comment that Russia is letting democracy slip away. “It is important that Russia make clear to the world that it is intent on strengthening the rule of law, strengthening the role of an independent judiciary, and permitting a free and independent press,” Rice said recently.


Putin has attacked freedom of the press with his takeover of major TV stations and the repression of free speech. The three party political system has been contaminated by his unbridled interference, while the development and promotion of an independent judiciary continues to meet resistance.


His enthusiastic support for the reinstatement of Soviet-era symbols and ceremonies have Western observers scratching their heads. Old Soviet trademarks such as the red military flag, the Soviet Star crest, and the Soviet national anthem have been resurrected. In addition, mass murderer Josef Stalin’s image is scheduled to return from a fifty-year hiatus to the streets of Moscow in the coming months.


Under Putin’s watch, anti-Semitism is gripping Russia and threatens the country’s nearly one million Jews. In January, 58 delegates in the Russian Duma voted against a resolution condemning anti-Semitic attacks. Instead, 20 legislators signed an utterly shameful petition calling for the outlawing of all Jewish organizations and activities as “extremist.” Without question, this is disturbing behavior from an aspiring world power.


With the support of Putin, Russia is rapidly modernizing and streamlining its military. Defense spending under Putin has increased incrementally every year since 2000 and will increase another 28 percent in 2005.


The nuclear card has also been placed on the table once again. In November, Putin proudly announced that Russia was developing a new form of nuclear missile. Many experts believe the new weapon is designed specifically to penetrate America’s missile defense shield. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov, a staunch supporter of Putin, cryptically commented to reporters in January, “Thank God engineers capable of creating such weapons have not yet become extinct in Russia.” Russia also plans to build new strategic nuclear missile bases that will be the most advanced in the world.


How should the West decipher such aggressive, Soviet-era styled actions and rhetoric?


Foreign Policy


In foreign affairs, accusations that the Russian president was somehow involved in the poisoning of Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko and the recent death of Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, both pro-democracy supporters, have hurt his image with the international community.


The sale of military hardware and related technology to oppressive, non-democratic countries is also an increasing concern for the White House. With a military production apparatus that is second only to the U.S, Russia shipped military armaments and hardware to 59 countries in 2004, up from 53 in 2003. Eighty percent of the arms shipments were delivered to India and China. Putin’s consent to sell weapons to Venezuela, the sale of missiles and air defense systems to Syria, and defense negotiations with Saudi Arabia have upset senior Bush Administration officials.


Russia’s participation in the construction of Iran’s 1,000 megawatt Bushehr plutonium reactor and its planned shipment of nuclear fuel in the face of EU and U.S. concerns is an extremely troubling development. A Russia-Iran agreement for the joint development of the Iranian Zohreh-2 telecommunications satellite and subsequent talks concerning a joint space agency are also reason for concern.


The number of Russian spies in both the U.S. and Germany has increased dramatically under ex-KGB chief Putin. In the U.S., spies are reportedly engaged in industrial espionage and are collecting information concerning the former Soviet republics, China, the Middle East and energy.


To the chagrin of Western experts, the evolving Sino-Russian bilateral relationship seems to get stronger with each passing day. Tang Jiaxuan, a member of China’s State Council, stated recently that “Moscow and Beijing can find increasingly common ground for unity talks and action.” China’s growing dependence on Russia’s colossal oil and gas reserves, military hardware and related technologies, and Russia’s reciprocal dependence on Chinese investment, makes it a compulsory partnership for both countries.


A Russia-U.S. relationship characterized by common security interests and economic goals has suddenly become laden with complications, defensiveness and uncertainties. To address this changing bilateral relationship, the U.S. will need to consider the formulation of a new Russian strategy balancing Putin’s budding vision for Russian regional and global significance with America’s desire for democracy and global stability. If approached improperly, the U.S. risks pushing Putin toward a more authoritarian, anti-West policy.  


Gaining the support of an increasing energy and defense dependant cadre of EU, Asian, African, and South American allies for the continuation of democratic reforms in Russia will be difficult, but equally as important. Recent comments made by EU head Jose Manuel Barroso have been promising in this regard: “The EU’s position on this [democratic reforms] has always been consistent and not very different from what was expressed by President Bush’s,” said Barroso.

Vladimir Putin is not an irrational madman with a desire for world conquest. He is, however, a man that needs to become more receptive to Western words of advice on issues related to democracy and less defensive in debate. More importantly, Putin must demonstrate to the West and the Russian people once and for all that he is a committed global leader in the struggle for democracy.

Fred Stakelbeck is a Senior Asia Fellow with Washington-based Center for Security Policy. He is an expert on the economic and national security implications for the U.S. of China's emerging regional and global strategic influence. Comments can be forwarded to Frederick.Stakelbeck@verizon.net.

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