The Latest Autocrat

Saturday, July 30, 2005

World democratic opinion has yet to realize the alarming implications of President Vladimir Putin’s State of the Union speech on April 25, 2005, in which he said that the collapse of the Soviet Union represented the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” What this former KGB officer is saying is that it would have been better for the world if a totalitarian dictatorship, one that in the seven decades of its existence was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of Russians and other peoples or their imprisonment in a Gulag slave labor system, were still to exist. Just imagine if the chancellor of Germany were to announce that the fall of the Third Reich was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

The more I see and read about Mr. Putin, in power since 1999, and his “managed democracy,” the more apprehensive I become about the future of Russia and the safety of its neighbors. If Putin believes that the dissolution of the Soviet Union into 15 independent states represents the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” then it follows that Putin might well believe he should do something to repair the loss occasioned by his predecessors Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev. Millions of onetime Soviet citizens, including the beleaguered Chechen people, believe that they are better off today because of the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” But to Putin the end of the Soviet Union did not mean freedom for millions of Soviet-yoked people—for him it meant, and still means, catastrophe.

Under Putin, the number of criminal cases against journalists, accusing them of libel and insulting public officials, is increasing. Journalists also face 6,000–8,000 civil defamation cases every year in which the burden of proof is on the accused, according to Oleg Panfilov, head of the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.

“Under Putin, unfortunately, the criminal code has started getting used incredibly often. On average, we have counted 30–35 cases a year. That is an incredibly high number,” he said. “Russia is probably the only country where criminal cases against journalists are opened that often.”

Fortunately, Mr. Putin is barred from running for a third term because the constitution contains term limitations. On September 5, Putin told an audience of foreign political scientists meeting in the Kremlin that he had no intention of running for a third term. Yet why am I uneasy about Mr. Putin’s promise?

The thousand-year history of Russia has an underlying consistency. Although it has never been able to produce a genuine democracy, it has successfully produced imperialist tyrannies, tsarist and Bolshevik. The very first tsar, Ivan IV (1533–84), crushed the power of rival dukes and boyars and became an emperor. During his reign, he tried to strengthen the state and the military, but his methods and acts were so horribly cruel that he was later called Ivan the Terrible.

It is time to put aside fanciful hopes about Putin as Russia’s democrat in chief. The best single-phrase description of Putin is “Stalin lite.” Thus it was understandable that Putin would celebrate the ninetieth birthday of Yuri V. Andropov, the merciless head of the KGB. The Andropov celebration last year did not create much notice. Yet there would have been hell to pay, even a half-century later, had the German government in 2000 celebrated the birth centenary of Heinrich Himmler, the remorseless head of the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo, and the SS and one of the architects of the Holocaust.

Putin has stated that he is prepared to supply weapons to outlaw regimes. He has said he would provide short-range missiles to Syria and nuclear components to Iran. To fulfill such intentions would mean perhaps an even greater geopolitical catastrophe. That is why I say Vladimir Putin endangers world peace.