Why is Bush silent on Russia's retreat from democracy?
Are we supporting democracy everywhere? Or are we letting Putin get away with increasing his authoritarian rule because he controls so much oil and gas? Read about the appalling conditions in the Siberian labor camp where former Yukos owner Khodorkovsky is being held on trumped up charges. The petty harrassment techniques of cancelling visits on petty pretexts is an exact copy of methods used during Communist times in the eighties when Irina Ratushinska and many other political dissidents were imprisoned under similar circumstances. Nothing much has changed there, and more and more Putin is taking Russia back to what is familiar -- a police state with little or no political freedom. Only now he wields considerable dominance of the region's oil and gas as a weapon of state power.
Bush's Big Silence
If promoting democracy is President Bush's largest ambition, then Russia is his largest failure.
Not that President Vladimir Putin is the world's most repressive ruler -- far from it. Dictatorships in Burma, North Korea and Zimbabwe are more stifling. So, for that matter, are tyrannies in Russia's neighborhood, such as Belarus, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
But no other nation has regressed from openness to authoritarianism during Bush's time in office as dramatically and decisively as Russia -- and with less apparent objection from Bush.
[...]Irina Yasina, director of a pro-democracy foundation in Moscow, said the mood in Russia today resembles what Russians recall as the "stagnation era" under General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. Yasina, 42, remembers as a 10-year-old being told by her father -- the now well-known liberal economist Yevgeny Yasin -- that he felt buried alive by the communist system.
"But at least then we knew that we were at the end of something," Yasina, a former journalist, said during a visit to Washington last week. "What is most frightening now is that we don't know whether something is ending or is only just beginning."
This month Putin signed legislation that could shutter Yasina's foundation and many other civic organizations. The law creates a Soviet-style bureaucracy to register nongovernmental organizations, leaving the qualifications so vague that the bureaucrats, or the Kremlin, will be free to license or reject as they choose.
Yasina's foundation is a likely target because it was founded, and is still largely endowed, by billionaire oilman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whom Putin has had confined to a labor camp near the Chinese border because the tycoon dared hint of a political challenge. The camp is a nine-hour plane ride followed by a 15-hour train ride from Moscow, but sometimes when his lawyers arrive they are told they cannot see their client because lawyer visiting hours coincide with forced-labor hours, Yasina said. Khodorkovsky's visit with his wife, promised for month's end, was canceled -- because, he was told, the visiting room is undergoing renovation.
This may seem petty, but pettiness and paranoia are hallmarks of a president who increasingly has isolated himself from anyone but former KGB agents like himself. The broadcast media are Kremlin-controlled, as are parliament, provincial governors, unjailed business tycoons and the judiciary. All of these sectors were free and independent when Putin -- and Bush -- took office.
Now, although they are weak and he is strong, Putin is going after civic organizations, because they are the final outposts of independent activity -- and because he is convinced that the CIA will use such groups to threaten his regime.
This is the man whom Bush will visit in July when Putin hosts a Group of Eight meeting in St. Petersburg. There will be fine photo opportunities in repainted czarist palaces, and the message Putin wants to send his subjects will be clear: I am a czar, and the leaders of the world's democracies do not care; they accept me. The question for Bush is whether he is happy to help Putin send that message.