Russia Returns to Dictatorship

Alexander Litvinenko made headlines for weeks when he fell violently ill with radiation poisoning last November. Litvinenko died on November 23, and the world mourned. But when a teapot laced with sky-high levels of polonium-210 turned up in a London hotel a few weeks later—and when British officials announced that forensic evidence and British intelligence indicated a state-sponsored assassination carried out by Russian security services—the collective world media eye hardly blinked.

Three months later, Paul M. Joyal was shot in the groin outside his suburban Maryland home as he was coming home from work. Only four days earlier, Mr. Joyal had accused President Putin of playing a role in Litvinenko’s death on “Dateline NBC”. The shooting occurred in a normally “quiet” neighborhood, according to local police, and nothing was stolen from Mr. Joyal during the incident. Although the FBI has offered its help to local investigators, no suspects or motives have been named.

Mr. Litvinenko’s and Mr. Joyal’s brutal attacks are only the grim capstone on a long string of murders—thirteen of their journalist colleagues in Russia have been murdered in the six years since President Putin took office. All thirteen journalists had a history of tackling issues which were politically distasteful to the Kremlin—from Moscow’s human rights abuses in Chechnya to Russian arms sales to Iran and Syria to newly-minted Russian tycoons with suspect political ties—and not one murderer has been convicted. In most cases authorities never even arrested any suspects.

Political oppression is nothing new to post-Soviet Russia. Shady media assassinations aside, the Kremlin has steadily sliced away the political freedoms of Russian citizens over the past five years. Opposition politicians, NGO leaders, and Russian private-sector businessmen have all complained of the heavy hand of the Kremlin intimidation. Two days after Joyal’s shooting, police violently quashed a peaceful opposition protest in St. Petersburg, beating dozens of protestors with truncheons before carting them off to jail, somewhere. In the upcoming 2008 presidential elections, Putin’s endorsed candidate is widely expected to win; and Putin has already explicitly stated that he plans to remain a prominent political figure after his term ends.
But the attacks on Litvinenko and Joyal have taken Russian oppression to a new low—the Kremlin’s reach now extends beyond Russian borders into the world at large. Joyal’s statements in his February 25th “Dateline” interview now ring truer than ever: “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’.”

Perhaps this revelation should not be so shocking in light of a law that the Russian Parliament passed last summer which allows Russian law enforcement and special forces agents to kill “extremists” wherever they may be found—and expands the definition of extremist to include anybody who is critical of the national government. Putin’s rubber-stamp Parliament legalized extra-judicial killings last year—and our media yawned and mentioned it in the back pages, if at all.

At a February 27th Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, National Intelligence Director John McConnell warned that Russia is taking a step backward in its march to democracy. McConnell also acknowledged that “a flush economy and perceived policy successes at home and abroad have bolstered Russian confidence, enabled increased defense spending, and emboldened the Kremlin to pursue foreign policy goals that are not always consistent with those of Western institutions”.

Russia is not simply “taking a step backward” in its path to democracy. The country is currently hurtling in the opposite direction, towards authoritarianism, with Putin and his Kremlin cronies in the lead. We are witnessing the rebirth of Russian dictatorship.

Of course nobody outside of Putin’s closest circles can really know who is in charge of the puppet show that Moscow has become. Perhaps the 2008 presidential election will clear things up a bit for us outsiders—but it is more likely that it will not. One of Putin’s protégés—his current favorites are Dmitry Medvedev, a board chairman for OAO Gazprom and director of a massive new national social-spending program, and Sergei Ivanov, current defense minister and ex-KGB agent—may win the election, but the behind-the-scenes power structure will remain opaque. Russian politics, just like Russian business enterprise, is not very transparent.

In the end it doesn’t really matter who is in charge of Russia’s dictatorship; only that it is a dictatorship and that the limited freedoms that the Russian people briefly enjoyed after the disintegration of the Soviet Union are being trampled once again.

Unfortunately, today’s Kremlin elite appear to have learned some lessons from their Soviet-era predecessors. Now Moscow hides behind a thin veneer of democracy. The Soviet Union was at least an honest enemy. Today’s Kremlin will greet Western diplomats with one hand while slipping weapons to Iranian and Syrian terrorists with the other. The Kremlin’s reaction to the various accusations that the West (usually the US) has leveled against it is usually outright denial. Mr. Litvinenko’s sad story is a prime example: Russia refuses to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, Mr. Litvinenko’s killer, to Britain; labeling accusations against the ex-KGB agent as preposterous even though a literal radioactive trail was found in all of the places that Lugovoi went on the day of Litvinenko’s murder.

Ultimately this is a wiser, more sustainable strategy for any country that is an enemy of the U.S. In a Cold War-style battle of ideologies, one ideology must win out over the other in the end. Russia may go on back-stabbing the US—funding terrorism in the Middle East and supporting dictatorships in the former Soviet bloc—until the US decides to do something about it. And “doing something about it” is more difficult than it sounds. Russia is not a North Korea or an Iran, whose leaders openly despise the US and directly orchestrate a fight against US interests. Russia would be a fair-weather friend…except that the “friendship” is so one-sided right now it is more like a fair-weather leech.

The currently lukewarm Washington-Moscow relationship will probably lurch on— until one day, a situation will arise somewhere which directly pits Russian and American interests against each other. On that day the US will discover just how serious an enemy Russia has become.
In the meantime, Moscow is not to be trusted.

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