TCS Daily

The Eyes Have It?

By Ilya Shapiro - March 5, 2004 12:00 AM

After her first meeting with the newly-chosen Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Maggie Thatcher is said to have reported to Ronald Reagan that unlike Moscow's preceding succession of geriatric incompetents, "we can work with this man." What the Iron Lady meant was that Gorbachev was (relatively) reasonable and that his leadership could, if pushed the right way by the free world, lead to a thaw in the Cold War and real reforms in the sclerotic Soviet system.

Thatcher's keen observation proved prescient and fortunate beyond any right-thinking person's wildest dreams: Gorbachev's rule brought glasnost, perestroika, withdrawal from Afghanistan, summitry and weapons reduction treaties with Reagan, and, eventually the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its Communist empire.

A decade and a half after Gorbachev's ascension, George W. Bush also had a fateful meeting with a new master of the Kremlin, and was quoted as saying that he had "looked into Vladimir Putin's eyes" and adjudged him a man we could trust. Unfortunately, the President has turned out to be a worse judge of character than Lady Thatcher. As the old Russian proverb that President Reagan was fond of quoting goes, "trust but verify" -- and a verification of Putin's trustworthiness (inasmuch as Bush's statement of "trust" related to the United States having a positive working relationship with Russia, and to Putin continuing to reform Russia for the better) turns up some disturbing evidence.

Vladimir Putin came into power in 1999 as the hand-picked successor of Boris Yeltsin, who left office before his term expired due to ill health and finally being able to work out a deal protecting his family's interests. A virtual unknown, Putin had risen through the KGB apparatus and gained Communist Party favor in his native St. Petersburg, adroitly transferring his cunning political acumen to the democratic age. With the emergence of a backlash to the corruption, financial crises, and seeming lawlessness of the late 1990s -- reflected in Yeltsin's own descent into alcohol-addled decrepitude -- Putin immediately played into the yearning for a return to the "stability" not seen in Russia since the Brezhnevite 1970s.

Yet many doubted that Putin would do much of anything aside from recreating the role of a Soviet General Secretary atop a modernized nomenklatura, ruling heavy-handedly (if decisively) while coalescing power around an impregnable retinue of inner-circle advisers and parliamentary aides. Russian émigrés saw Putin as a tipichniy G-B-shnik -- a typical KGB type -- a man formed by his tenure in the secretive organ of state security, a formidable adversary for liberal reformers at home and well-meaning democrats abroad. Intellectuals and Westernizers, suspicious groups in the nationalist Russian psyche, predicted a rolling back of civil rights and a reversal of the post-Cold War rapprochement with America.

Unfortunately, Putin's presidency has vindicated such pessimistic prognoses. Since his elevation to the highest office in a vast nation struggling to reform itself and redefine its place in the world, Putin has: propagated a brutal war in Chechnya and other ethnic republics which "threaten the integrity of the Russian Federation"; maintained troops in Georgia and Moldova despite treaty commitments to the contrary; flirted with a union with Lukashenko's Belarus as the first step to reconstituting the Russian Empire; shuttered independent news outlets and curtailed press freedoms; persecuted religious minorities; installed lapdog provincial governors and encouraged them to develop personal fiefdoms for ease of administration; ratified the private monopolies controlling Russia's energy and manufacturing sectors (again, for ease of administration by the Kremlin); and, relatedly, jailed or exiled businessmen in the aforementioned media and manufacturing sectors (many of whom happen to be Jewish) when they dared enter the political arena or otherwise question his authority.

More recently, Putin disappointed the White House by so obstinately opposing the incursion into Iraq -- after a year of close cooperation on the war on terrorism. Notably, however, Putin did so without arousing the kind of ire that did France and Germany. (Congress did not go about giving a new name to White Russians or boycotting vodka, after all.) Russia was not expected to back us, you see, and it does still have that messy transition from Communism to deal with, the poor dear.

Yet Putin's reasons for opposing the Iraq war paralleled Chirac's: business interests implicated in Saddam's regime and the perceived need to counterbalance the American "hyper-power." And Russian companies, with the Kremlin's acquiescence, have continued to sell nuclear technology to Iran (and possibly North Korea).

To add anti-democratic insult to authoritarian injury, in last fall's parliamentary elections, several "parties," as well as a group of "independents," ran on nothing more than that they supported Putin (and that he supported them). This odd-ball collective easily trounced all comers, giving the so-called Party of Power an overwhelming majority in the Duma -- and securing for Putin an evermore compliant legislative branch. This seems to have been the straw that at least made the camel take notice, as the U.S. State Department questioned the legitimacy of an election process that saw the two remaining reform parties -- the liberal Union of Right Forces and the social democrat Yabloko -- fall under the threshold for official recognition.

Even before the Duma elections, however, Colin Powell raised the issue of Putin's increasingly problematic behavior at a meeting between top U.S. and British officials. Condoleezza Rice tried to mitigate the worries of Bush and Blair by citing Russians' long history of desiring an enlightened despot, as well as highlighting the differences between Putin's Russia and the Soviet Union. At the end of the day, we have to do business with Moscow somehow.

Since that time, Powell has been increasingly critical of Putin -- and increasingly open about his criticism, such as in his White House-approved front-page article in Izvestia on the eve of meetings with Putin and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in January.

Next month, Putin is headed to a re-election that resembles nothing so much as a re-coronation -- or one of the Soviet-era elections where the anointed candidates all got, say, 99.6% percent of the vote. Indeed, Putin's leading "challengers" are Irina Khakamada, a gutsy Duma deputy whose own party, the Union of Right Forces, refuses to endorse her for fear of alienating Putin, and Ivan Rybkin, a nationalist crackpot whom the KGB recently "disappeared" to the Ukraine and then told to publicize his absence as a long-weekend bender. This is a far cry even from eight years ago, when Yeltsin narrowly defeated Communist leader Gennadi Zyuganov after a massive infusion of Western campaign funds and overwhelmingly biased media attention.

In the end, Putin proves that the "hairy leader" theory of Soviet politics is equally valid in post-Soviet Russia, just in reverse. Where under Communism, the bald (Lenin, Khrushchev, Gorbachev) represented radical change and the hirsute (Stalin, Brezhnev) conservative retrenchment, now it is the balding Putin's strategic repression that follows upon the silver-haired Yeltsin's botched liberalization.

When thinking of foreign policy and national security, President Bush would be wise to remember that while Russia cannot be ignored, its spymaster-turned-president, whatever his eyes may say, is not a man we can trust to do anything but act in his own parochial interests.

Ilya Shapiro is currently clerking on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. He last wrote for TCS about immigration reform.


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