Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Vladimir Putin is still the boss

Dmitry Medvedev was sworn in as Russia's new president this past week, in a stately event at the Kremlin that should make no one feel at ease. Medvedev, 42, is the hand-picked successor of former president (and former KGB colonel) Vladimir Putin.

Since assuming office from Boris Yeltsin at the dawn of this decade, Putin has presided over what the Financial Times quaintly calls, "a closely managed democracy." Put another way, Putin has crushed dissent, jailed businessmen and journalists and, prior to Medvedev's installation, altered the Russian political system such that he will retain power even as he shifts to the role of prime minister. When Putin's domestic heavy-handedness is combined with Russia's increasing international agitation -- including forays into North American airspace -- there is little reason to believe that danger died with the Soviet Union.

"The Russian Bear is back." So said General Rick Hillier, Canadian Chief of Defence Staff, to a gathering of North American business leaders earlier this year. Hillier advised that Canada has had to increase patrols of its northern region as Russia routinely transgresses territorial boundaries, both in the air and beneath the seas. In February, Russian bombers were intercepted by U. S. fighter jets after violating Japanese airspace and buzzing an American aircraft carrier in the Pacific. Such Russian flights over the Pacific have been routine since at least 2007. In 2005, Russia and China conducted their first-ever joint military exercises, activating thousands of troops on land, air and sea, presumably for the edification of Western powers.

American leaders have diverged in their opinions of Putin's Russia. President George W. Bush, early in his administration, famously claimed that he looked into Putin's eyes and saw a man with a good heart. One could argue, however, that for all their long looks, Bush has taken a hard line with Putin, negotiating to expand missile defence and NATO in eastern Europe, right up until this year. Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, meanwhile, has taken a harsher public stand on Putin: "I looked into his eyes and I saw three letters-- K-G-B."

At home, Putin has shown no hesitation to imprison people who oppose or criticize him, from Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky to chess champion Garry Kasparov, who was arrested in November, 2007, and denied access to lawyers and visitors. Arrests and crackdowns have been accompanied by a heavy dose of re-centralization. Before reverting to the role of prime minister, Putin arranged for the governors of Russia's 85 regions to report to him personally, rather than the Kremlin. It would seem that, through Medvedev, Putin's personal and punitive reign will go on.

It must be terrifically tempting, in such a society, to keep one's head down to stay out of trouble. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed in his seminal chronicle of the Soviet Terror, The Gulag Archipelago: "Every man always has handy a dozen glib little reasons why he is right not to sacrifice himself."

One of the graces of Russia's new repression is that many of its excesses remain public, for those who care to look. Among Solzhenistyn's laments as the Terror progressed was that, after a few well-known and public trials, the courts and tribunals became closed-door operations, while society trudged along in tragic ignorance. That is, until their turn came.

It is doubtful that Putin and Medvedev will lead Russia back down the sorry road of Soviet communism. But tyranny goes by many names and aggression advances under flags of convenience. As always, it is the duty of free people to keep a watchful eye.