In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s fall and dismemberment, it was widely believed that democratic reforms would be ushered in. Gorbachev had his perestroika which was designed to save as much of communism as possible; Yeltsin, however, claimed communism was dead, a relic of a bygone past.
But the Yeltsin era ended not as tragedy but as farce. Yeltsin was besotted more often than not, acted as a buffoon and was susceptible to corruption. He was replaced by Vladimir Putin, a former KGB operative, who was discharged with putting the Russian humpty-dumpty together again.
For Yeltsin, liberation from economic oppression took the form of a Wild West land grab. Oligarchs gobbled up key sectors of the economy protected by their own private armies as Yetsin averted his gaze or was complicit in the public looting.
Putin restored order in precisely the manner one would expect from a KGB agent. He was ruthless and relentless. He didn’t challenge all the oligarchs only those who used their wealth to compete against his political dominance. When Khordokovsky supported Putin’s democratic rivals, he soon found himself in trouble with the law and now spends his time hammering stones in a labor camp, a broken and forgotten figure.
Putin is the embodiment of the Russian Brumaire, a Napoleon there to restore order, but who violates all of the democratic principles that brought him to power in the first place. His government is organized to promote stability. After all, he has argued the Russian people respect a strong leader.
While he is unquestionably a political figure different from Stalin and his Soviet successors, he is by no means either a democratic proponent or a benevolent autocrat. He presides over a still vast nation with seemingly intractable problems. Russian citizens, for example, have a life expectancy that is in continual decline, the only western nation in this predicament.
American foreign policy analysts are inclined to give Putin the benefit of the doubt suggesting it is better to have his brand of dictatorship than instability. Alas, there is some truth to this contention. Russian intelligence services, eager to ferret out Chechnyan Muslim terrorists, have also worked closely with their counterparts in the U.S. on actions against international terrorism.
But that is only part of a complex story. Putin realizes that the only way to forestall democratic impulses already evident in nearby Ukraine and counter American influence in Asia is to sign a mutual defense pact with China and, this year, engage in joint military exercises. Dictators tend to find like-minded conditions in fellow dictators.
There are many reasons to believe this relationship is unsustainable including border disputes, competition for resources and the growing Chinese population in Siberia. At the moment, however, it is a dangerous challenge to American interests and poses a threat to a U.S. defense of Taiwan should an attack be launched from the mainland.
This China card is an insurance policy for Putin which gives him credibility at home and influence abroad. For the U.S. it is a danger sign that must be thwarted.
At this juncture, the U.S. has some leverage over the Russians because of trade, foreign investment and the development of the still immature oil industry. It is incumbent on President Bush to speak plainly and directly to the man he claims to understand. Russian interests, needless to say, may not be consonant with those of the Bush administration, but when they are in conflict, diplomatic pressure must be exerted.
It is time for Bush to address Putin the way Reagan spoke to Gorbachev in Reykjavik. Just as there must be a “stick” for challenging U.S. interests, there should also be a “carrot” for embracing political openness and liberalization. In the long run, Russian’s future as a European entrant is dependent on democratization.