Ever since President Vladimir Putin took office eight long years ago, the political and media leadership of the West have had a full-time job trying to look on the bright side of Russia’s rapid turn from democracy.
The free press has been demolished, elections are canceled and rigged, and then we hear how popular Mr. Putin is. Opposition marches are crushed, and we’re told — over and over — how much better off we are today than in the days of the Soviet Union. This week Time magazine named Mr. Putin its 2007 “Person of the Year.”
Unfortunately, there is no silver lining to Russia’s descent into dictatorship. If anything there is a look of iron to it.
Condoleezza Rice, hardly a Putin critic, said recently that Russia “is not an environment in which you can talk about free and fair elections.” A good start, but this comment was not made where one would imagine — perhaps at a press conference insisting that Putin’s Russia be removed from the G-7 for making a mockery of democratic practices. No, her remark came as a side note to her very early endorsement of Mr. Putin’s handpicked heir to the throne, Dmitry Medvedev.
The most revealing moment in Ms. Rice’s comments came when the topic of Mr. Medvedev as the next president was first broached. The official transcript reads: “SECRETARY RICE: Well, I guess, they’re still going to have an election in March. <Laughter.>”
Perhaps my sense of humor was dulled during the five days I spent in a Moscow jail last month for protesting against these sham elections. Or maybe it was reading about the constant persecution of my fellow activists across the country that did it. Madam Secretary went on to speak approvingly of Mr. Medvedev, making the undemocratic nature of his selection sound like a minor annoyance. The last remaining element of democracy in Russia, the transition of power, will be destroyed. Will Mr. Putin and his successor still be welcomed with open arms in the club of leading democracies?
In the early days of our opposition activities last year, when members of Other Russia were harassed and arrested, the “bright siders” in the West said it could be worse. Later, when our marchers were badly beaten in St. Petersburg and Moscow, Mr. Putin’s fans in the West said at least the police weren’t killing us in the streets.
Last week, 22-year-old opposition activist Yury Chervochkin died in hospital after several weeks in a coma. He had been beaten nearly to death an hour after making an anxious cellphone call to our offices saying he was being followed by members of the organized-crime task force known as UBOP, which has become the vanguard of the Kremlin’s war on political opposition. A witness saw him clubbed repeatedly by men with baseball bats.
Yury’s sin was not chanting Nazi slogans or praising the deeds of Josef Stalin, activities that regularly go unremarked in Russia these days. No, he had been caught throwing leaflets that read “The elections are a farce!” That was enough to make him a marked man. Now, for agitating for real democracy in Russia, he is dead.
The stakes have been raised to the highest level, and what bright side will be found now? Where is the line that cannot be crossed without a serious response from the West? So far Mr. Putin hasn’t found it — and he has good reason to suspect such a line simply does not exist. It is for the leaders in Washington, D.C., Paris and Berlin to decide what it means to denounce the Russian elections as fraudulent, only to then embrace the winners as democratic partners.
Lesser tragedies than that of Yury Chervochkin are occurring on a regular basis in Russia today. Last week journalist Natalya Morar was denied entry into the country on secret orders of the FSB security force, after writing investigative articles on financial deals with Kremlin connections. Lyudmila Kharlamova, a political organizer for Other Russia, was arrested after heroin was planted among her possessions in Orenburg. Activist Andrei Grekhov suffered a similar fate in Rostov, though the police chose to plant bullets instead of drugs in his pockets.
This is a good opportunity to remember Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative journalist who was murdered on Oct. 7, 2006, Putin’s birthday. The police investigation into this infamous assassination has stalled and talk of it has died down. The Kremlin is counting on the same thing happening with “minor” cases like that of Yury Chervochkin.
In a recent speech, Mr. Putin said “the enemies of the state must be wiped out!” It has been made quite clear that by “enemies” he means anyone who opposes his total authority. It is no surprise that his words are taken at face value across the country, and acted on by security forces eager to prove their loyalty and enthusiasm.
The presidents and prime ministers of the West seem just as eager to bow down to the Kremlin and the great god of business as usual. Nicolas Sarkozy raced to congratulate Mr. Putin on his party’s election victory, despite the overwhelming evidence of massive fraud at the polls. A few days later France’s Renault picked up a 25% share in Russian automaker AvtoVaz, a purchase made from Sergei Chemezov and his arms-dealing company Rosoboronexport. Why should Mr. Putin and his oligarchs worry about democracy as long as the money keeps rolling in?
Time magazine, of course, took obvious pains to explain that its award to Mr. Putin is “not an endorsement” and that it goes to the person who made the most news “for better or for worse.” Nonetheless the article praises Mr. Putin for restoring his country to prominence in the international arena, dispelling “anarchy” and recovering national pride. The magazine does express concern about his “troubling” record on human rights.
The same things could have been said about Adolf Hitler in 1938, when he took his turn as Time’s Man of the Year. “Fascism,” Time wrote then, “has discovered that freedom — of press, speech, assembly — is a potential danger to its own security.” Again these words apply equally well to this year’s winner.
Most of the criticism leveled against Mr. Putin regards “alleged” abuses or comes directly from known critics. This abdicates the journalist’s role to report the facts as facts.
Consider the timing of this announcement, right after the counterfeit parliamentary elections that added to Mr. Putin’s record of eradicating democracy across Russia. The Time article will be trumpeted by Kremlin propaganda as an endorsement of Mr. Putin’s policies. The man on the street will be told that even America, constantly blasted by the Kremlin as an enemy, has been forced to recognize the president’s greatness.
Internationally, the focus will be on the myth that Mr. Putin has built a “strong Russia.” In fact he and his cronies have hollowed out the state from within. Most of the power now resides in the super-corporations like Gazprom and Rosneft, and among the small group of loyalists who run them.
The Putin regime has taken Russia from a frail democracy to an efficient mafia state. It was an impressive balancing act — behaving like a tyrant while at the same time staying in the good graces of the West.
After each crackdown, with no significant international reaction forthcoming, Mr. Putin knew it was safe to take another step. As ever, appeasement in the name of realpolitik only encourages would-be dictators. And such moral weakness inevitably leads to very real costs in human life.
By GARRY KASPAROV
Mr. Kasparov is a former world chess champion and a leader of The Other Russia, a pro-democracy coalition. He is the author of “How Life Imitates Chess,” recently published by Bloomsbury USA..