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Russian Roulette

MOSCOW — Is Russian President Vladimir Putin morphing into Joseph Stalin? As the March 14 national election (widely expected to result in a landslide victory for the incumbent) approaches, American commentators, officials, and some Russians fear the continuation of what has been called a creeping coup, as Putin’s hold over Russia’s parliament grows while he reneges on his pledges to withdraw troops from former Soviet republics. Putin’s abrupt firing of his entire Cabinet only fueled speculation that the president is remaking the government in his own image.

The central question posed by Putin’s critics is whether or not his presidency, and the two-thirds majority that Putin’s Unity Russia Party holds in the Duma, portend an autocratic purge of democracy inside Russia. In a speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in January, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, complained about Putin’s “stranglehold on power.”

Russians, however, see such arguments as, yet again, the American teapot calling the Russian samovar black. To understand Russia is to understand ourselves: Not since the Cold War has the general behavior of both countries looked so similar, and the official feuding been so vitriolic.

When Arizona Senator John McCain complained (along with the European Union) that Putin has gone back on his commitment to remove Russian troops from the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Georgia and the Ukraine, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov shot back about the American abjuration of its commitments to both the antiballistic-missile treaty and the Kyoto accord on the environment.

Sounding almost Khrushchevian, he went on about American troops in Central Asia (deployed after 9/11 by President Bush in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence), and about American intentions to open military bases ever closer to Russia’s borders (in Romania and Poland).

 

The former mayor of Moscow, Gabriel Popov, once famously predicted that the recovery of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union would come in three phases: chaos, light totalitarianism and then heavy totalitarianism.

Though some believe that the first two stages have been completed, most Muscovites are not alarmed. Their fondness for authoritarian figures — along with their penchant for blaming them if they fail — is as old as their taste for borscht. They blame Mikhail Gorbachev for the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They blame Boris Yeltsin — Russia’s mascot of democratic freedom and economic reform — for selling off Russia’s most treasured assets to sundry oligarchs in a fire sale. They remember Bill Clinton standing behind Yeltsin as the ruble plummeted in August of 1997, Clinton urging Russia to stay the course of reform (privatization). They saw their pensions, their life savings and an entire middle class evaporate as a direct consequence of Yeltsin’s reforms, and the corruption underlying them.

Furthermore, the recent collapse of the roof at Transvaal Park — a recreation center in southern Moscow — from the weight of ice and snow, killing dozens and injuring scores, is widely regarded as an emblem for why American-style private enterprise can’t be trusted here. Transvaal Park, heralded as a triumph of private enterprise, was only 2 years old and built without a penny of government money. The Soviets may have been thugs and crooks, but at least their buildings are still standing and warm.

With Putin, Russians see that the ruble has stopped sinking. (It’s actually rising against the dollar, but only because of the greenback’s steady descent.) They see Yukos Oil Co. founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky defiant about his right to sell his Siberian oil to Chevron without paying taxes, and the next day they see Khodorkovsky stewing in prison. They also hear that Khodorkovksy has contributed millions of dollars to the political campaigns of Putin’s opponents, yet Khodorkovsky’s arrest doesn’t faze most Russians as being part of some totalitarian drift. They like the idea of a billionaire in a poverty-stricken land having to pay his fair share of taxes. They know about President Bush cutting sweetheart deals for America’s oligarchs. When they see Putin doing just the opposite, arresting the bastards (even if it is just for show), they like him all the more.

Explains Viktor Dementov, a retired doctor living in a north Moscow apartment, “To make any kind of political dent in Russia, you have to have a really strong will and strong power. And you can’t get that kind of power in only one term. When Putin is re-elected, then we’re talking about eight years, then we’re talking about power.”

Yet Stalin built gulags only after holding power for eight years, cautions Dimitry Vragov, a freelance graphic designer, while tutoring a teenage student at her Ismailovsky Park home. Vragov is also voting for Putin, though more reluctantly, and mostly because of the absence of any other serious candidates. And now that a constitutional amendment has been floated in the Duma to abolish the president’s eight-year term limit (an amendment that Putin officially opposes at this point), hairs are starting to rise on some necks.

 

“Is this looking familiar?” asked the Duma’s resident gadfly, Vladimir Zhirinovsky (head of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party) on a Russian television talk show in January. “We no longer have a democratic parliament,” he said. “We have a presidential parliament.”

 

As an illustration of Putin’s — uh — sex appeal, a pop song swept through the former Soviet Union last year called “I Want a Man Like Putin,” sung by a teenage girl sick of her drunken boyfriends and yearning for a guy with Putin’s sobriety and strength.

Says 20-year-old Alexandra Varchuck, a graphic-design student, “Putin seems to be the only candidate who cares about Russia and who might actually do something. He’s gained the respect of other countries. Yeltsin was a drunk. In Germany, he took the baton from the conductor of a military orchestra and started dancing with the musicians. Everybody accepted him as a clown. Putin seems so much more dignified.”

Adds Viktor Dementov’s daughter, Irena, a 40-year-old manager in a small cargo company, “I don’t believe Putin can actually do much, he hasn’t so far, but I’m voting for him because after Gorbachev’s blah-blah-ing and Yeltsin’s chicanery, he’s the first president we’ve had I’m not ashamed of.”

According to a ROMIR tracking survey, Putin’s re-election will come with a voter turnout of over 67 percent. But the election has been rigged, say his detractors. Putin dominates the airwaves with one flattering appearance after another, because every television channel is now government-operated. As The New York Times pointed out on February 17, “The 20 highest-rated news programs in Russia all appear on three networks answerable directly or indirectly to the Kremlin.” Most irksome to Westerners is the idea of Putin, a former KGB lieutenant colonel, cracking down on Russia’s independent press.

First, in 2001, Putin “reorganized” the privately owned television network, NTV, ousting its owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, and turning it into an operation run by the oil company Gazprom, which is controlled by the Kremlin. More recently, Putin closed Russia’s last independent television station, which had been made up largely of refugees from the former NTV. (Technically, there remains one independent station in Russia [Ekho-TV], but it broadcasts only beyond Russia’s borders via satellite dishes owned by Gusinsky, who’s now exiled in Israel dodging the Kremlin’s embezzlement charges.)

All of which raises the question: To what degree do privately owned media conglomerates assure any greater freedom of speech or commitment to democratic values than state-run networks? In the months following the U.S.-U.K. invasion of Iraq, the independently owned and operated American press corps was hardly a beacon of independent thinking, compared to, say, even the BBC — which is a state-run corporation.

“Nobody misses the old independent channels,” says Irena, as her parents nod in agreement. “Now that they’re government channels, criticism of the Kremlin is actually sharper and more in-depth than before.”

In Moscow this January, a political forum called Svabodno Slova (Freedom of the Word) appeared on state-controlled NTV. For an entire hour, the host and the panel eviscerated Putin’s policies (much like the U.S. Democratic candidates’ debate went after Bush on CNN). Two weeks after that broadcast, Colin Powell rolled into Moscow to criticize the arrest of Khodorkovsky and to remark that in Russia, “Free media and political-party development . . . have not yet sustained an independent presence.” Powell’s remarks were printed in their entirety on the front page of the newspaper Izvestia, which has not been closed down, nor has its editor been removed.

 

“Never, since the first day of the Soviet Union, were so many KGB people in the government,” complains Felix Zacharov, a 48-year-old entrepreneur and father of two, explaining why he’s not voting for Putin. “Soon there will be strong dictatorship like in Stalin’s time — not exactly like in Stalin’s time, because of the Internet and other things, the Iron Curtain can’t just fall, but you can see the militsia [police] can do whatever it wants, no problem. The militsia has a salary of $250 a month, yet they all have nice apartments, cars — it’s already a joke: $250 a month, $300 a day in bribes.

“I’m not against Putin himself,” says Zacharov, “I’m against a former leader in the KGB being so close to power. During the most powerful time of the Soviet Union, the only honest and principled people were in prison.”

At a family dinner, the Dementovs answer a question about whether Russia’s election is rigged. Irena’s mother, Valentina, attacks America like a shark. The Russians know all about Florida, 2000, and Katherine Harris and the thousands of discounted Democratic votes. They also know about our hacker-vulnerable Diebold voting machines, and their lack of a paper trail.

 

“If you’re looking for totalitarianism,” Valentina says, handing me a piece of cake as her temper rises, “you might want to start inside your own borders instead of ours.”

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