The Return of the Gulag

 Posted by on 15 September 2004 at 8:53 am  Uncategorized
Sep 152004

In his excellent book Russia Under the Old Regime, Richard Pipes persuasively argues that Russia’s embrace of communism was not a break with the past, but rather merely a variation upon the autocratic and patrimonial state that dominated Russia for all its centuries. In light of that repressive history, I’m not surprised that Putin is seeking to return Russia to autocratic government. Nor will I be surprised when he succeeds.

President Vladimir Putin announced plans Monday for a “radically restructured” political system that would bolster his power by ending the popular election of governors and independent lawmakers, moves he portrayed as a response to this month’s deadly seizure of a Russian school.

Under his plan, Putin would appoint all governors to create a “single chain of command” and allow Russians to vote only for political parties rather than specific candidates in parliamentary elections. Putin characterized the changes as enhancing national cohesion in the face of a terrorist threat, while critics called them another step toward restoring the tyranny of the state 13 years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

His plans must go through parliament, but the Kremlin controls more than two-thirds of the legislature directly and two other political parties quickly endorsed the ideas. Even the governors, who could lose their jobs, surrendered, either welcoming the plans or remaining silent.

The plan was the latest move in a five-year campaign by Putin to consolidate power and neutralize potential opposition in the new Russia. Since coming into office at the end of 1999, Putin’s government has taken over or closed all independent national television channels, established unrivaled dominance of both houses of parliament, reasserted control over the country’s huge energy industry and jailed or driven into exile business tycoons who defied him.

The newest moves take a vision he calls “managed democracy” to a new level. Although governors in Russia’s 89 regions have been elected since 1995, Putin’s plan would give the president the right to appoint them, subject to confirmation by local legislatures.

At the same time, the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, would consist only of members elected from party lists, meaning that political parties such as Putin’s United Russia would exercise exclusive control over everyone who runs for election.

Viktor Pokhmelkin, one of the few pro-Western independents left in the Duma, called Putin’s plan the restoration of “imperial management.” In an interview, he added: “Today a very serious mistake has been made. The mistake is a threat to the future of the Russian state.”

But most of the political establishment either supported or acquiesced to the Putin plan. Dmitri Rogozin, head of the Motherland party, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal Democrats, endorsed the changes. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov denounced the measures, but he commands only half the Duma seats his party did when Putin came to power, so he has little ability to oppose them.

As a general rule, any country in which the communists are the only opponents of some scheme to grab political power is utterly doomed.

The article even notes that terrorism isn’t even an operative pretext since “in his public remarks, Putin offered little explanation for how the changes would defeat terrorism of the sort that visited Beslan earlier this month.”

Predictably, the Bush Administration has remained largely silent on the matter. A Washington Post editorial (found via Don Watkins)get it right:

Like a number of dictators around the world, Mr. Putin is learning that Mr. Bush’s passion for delivering speeches about freedom doesn’t mean he is willing to defend it in practice. Were he to do so, he would begin by issuing a statement as clear as that delivered yesterday by Democrat John F. Kerry. Mr. Kerry began by vowing to “work constructively with Russia” against terrorism, and then added: “I remain deeply concerned about President Putin’s ongoing moves to limit democratic freedoms and further centralize power. Russia will be a much more effective partner in the war on terror if its government is transparent, open to criticism, respectful of the rule of law and protects the human rights of its citizens, including those in Chechnya. Simply looking the other way — as the Bush administration has done — is not in the national security interest of the United States or Russia.”

Of course, I think that an even stronger statement is warranted, but at least Kerry spoke out. Moral pressure often has more impact than tolerationist appeasers of the left think — as the history of the Soviet Union demonstrates. For all of its talk, the Bush Administration cares little about genuine freedom. And an autocratic Russia, given its arsenal of nuclear weapons, is a grave threat to the security of the United States.

Frankly, I wonder how long Russians will have to wait for the return of the Gulag. Given that the vast majority of Russians seem content to allow their few short years of relative freedom slip back into autocracy, I cannot lament their likely future, as they are complicit in it. I do grieve for those few pro-Western Russians who understand what is at stake and who are fighting a desperate and losing battle for freedom in their country. They will be the first causalities.

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