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the price of silence

A couple of days ago Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, moved to tighten his grip on power (more coverage here, here and here) after the Beslan massacre. After stifling the Russian media and opposition for months (with resulting stories like these) without more than a whisper of complaint from Europe or the US, this would appear to be a logical move on his part. The latest move, which in practice puts Russia a few steps away from a dictatorship (by removing most of locally elected government officials and replacing them with his own choices), has finally elicited a reaction from the major press outlets. The Washington Post had a great editorial yesterday on the topic. The Posts's Robert Kagan also noted that: "Putin's decision on Monday to end the system of direct popular election of Russia's governors, and to have the Russian parliament elected on the basis of slates chosen by national party leaders he mostly controls, is an unambiguous step toward tyranny in Russia." The New York Times also had something to say. The Wall Street Journal Opinion Board, on the other end of the spectrum, was clear-cut in calling the changes "[...] utterly irrelevant to the task at hand, and quite likely counterproductive" and "[...] sweeping constitutional changes that could erase Russia's last vestiges of pluralistic democracy." The Guardian also has a good roundup of editorials from around the world.

The reaction of the press has, for once, been quick and to the point. But governments, EU Nations and the US foremost, have been a lot more equivocal. A Bush administration official was quoted in the Times as saying that this was a "domestic problem of the Russian people." By Tuesday, Colin Powell had changed tack a bit, by saying that "the fight against terrorism should not become an excuse to move away from 'democratic reforms of the democratic process.'" Yesterday, President Bush inched forward a little more saying he is "concerned about the decisions that are being made in Russia that could undermine democracy in Russia." To this mild rebuke, the Kremlin replied that "the processes that are under way in Russia are our internal affair."

So that's as far as the Bush Administration is concerned. I have heard nay a peep from the British government, the Irish government, or any other major European government for that matter. The silence of Blair, and the muted response of the Bush administration, are more worrying. Spreading democracy and freedom to stabilize the world have been, after all, the major rationales for the war in Iraq after the WMDs went the way of the Dodo.

My question has less to do with consistency (although that would be nice) and more with the effect that something like this has in fostering distrust on the world's most powerful nations. Just like western support for middle east dictatorships (and others around the world) creates cynicism and despair (and is then used as an excuse for nihilistic mass murder) letting Russia fall back under dictatorial rule would be an even bigger blow than dabbling with North Korea while they produce fissile material like McDonald's produces burgers.

Not to mention that a quasi-Russian dictatorship (a "Putinist" Russia) would be quite a lot more dangerous for world stability than any of the components of the much vaunted "Axis of Evil". Russia doesn't need "weapons-of-mass-destruction-related-programs-capability" (as US's National Security Advisor Rice one described the finds in Iraq). They already have WMDs, biological, chemical, and, of course, nuclear. Plus the delivery systems. Plus one of the biggest armies in the world.

So it is clear to me that Europe and the US have to respond quickly and without equivocation: these "reforms" should be rolled back. But how? The famous "You're either with us, or you're with the terrorists," while true in a narrow sense, creates a problem for open discussion and disagreement. After all, if that's the choice, then almost everyone would be "with us". But it's a false choice, because it doesn't allow for being against the terrorists, but by other means: you have to accept whatever "us" has chosen. While this proclamation might be sustainable in a democracy with a long history like the US, it is not sustainable in a newly-formed democracy with a history of opression, like Russia. But of course, Putin (as others, like Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf) silently invoke the "with us or against us" mantra, twisting it into "you either accept what I say, whatever it is, or you're with the terrorists."

It is probably unrealistic to ask the US or UK governments (or the EU) to step back from this rethoric, but they and the EU governments can certainly draw a line in the sand and stop a trend from becoming widely accepted reality.

The G8 has a number of carrots to take steps in this direction. If they are not used soon, the moment will pass, and it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible to pull back. If history has taught us anything is that dictatorships always emerge slowly, inch by inch, many times after the dictator has been "rightfully" elected, and sheepishly accepted by others and the people as the "necessary response" to attacks from within or outside.

Ignoring the hypocrisy of saying that the US and Europe are for freedom while letting something like this happen, I can't see any strategic scenario under which a newly dictatorial Russia would be anything but a disaster for the world. (If somebody has one, I'd very much like to hear about it).

Western nations, particularly the G8, should act now. The price of silence will be high otherwise.

Categories: geopolitics
Posted by diego on September 16 2004 at 12:23 PM

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