MOSCOW — The Other Russia Congress met here today, with more than 3,000 people in attendance, along with hundreds of police to keep tabs on them. They are a hardy bunch, daring to show their faces amid a growing crackdown on democracy in Russia.
One knowledgeable leader of the congress told us “there is no difference — none — between the level of repression now and that which prevailed under Brezhnev.” While President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice content themselves with lamenting “backsliding” on democracy, the naked truth is that Russia is now as repressive as it was under communism.
“Extremist” groups can be barred from participating in elections — and President Vladimir Putin defines who is and is not an extremist. The media, newspapers and television, are firmly under government control. Opposition views are simply not heard, and the news media just parrot government propaganda. Putin has cracked down on Voice of America and Radio Free Europe broadcasts, threatening stations that air them, effectively reducing their range to only Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Members of the Duma are selected from party slates — i.e. handpicked by Putin — and direct-election single-member districts have been abolished. Putin appoints governors, and the last democratically elected governor was arrested last month.
The former catalyst for the freedom and democracy movement, Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is in prison, serving an eight-year sentence. The jail is 12 miles from the Chinese border in a uranium-mining area where the radioactivity reduces life expectancy to 42 years. His sentence might as well be death. And, to make his life even worse in this frozen hell, where temperatures drop to 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, his face was recently slashed by a fellow inmate and he was locked in solitary confinement until his hunger strike forced his release back to the normal prison population.
This is Putin’s Russia.
But democracy is stirring. Important national leaders like former Prime Minister (under Putin) Mikhail Kasyanov, the leader of the People’s Democratic Union, and former chess champion Gary Kasparov are attacking Putin’s autocracy. Kasyanov might run against the dictator’s handpicked choice in 2008 unless Putin changes the constitution to allow himself to run for reelection. If he does, Kasyanov will give him a heck of a fight.
And the Bush administration? Quiet as a mouse. Bush and Rice have allowed Russia to stay in the G-8 with a democracy record no better than China’s, which remains excluded. They are even considering opening Western oil markets to Russian exports.
Meanwhile, Putin is using oil diplomacy — or really energy aggression — to try to cow his former satellites into submission. He has tried to quintuple gas prices to Ukraine. He’s bribed former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder with a $300,000-year-job with Gazprom, the Russian gas company, to OK and help fund a pipeline from Russia to Germany under the Baltic. The pipeline threatens to cut off gas supplies to Poland and Ukraine to punish them for their apostasy. He won’t buy Moldovan or Georgian wine to punish their freedom movements. (The United States should immediately lift its trade restrictions on wines from these two freedom-loving nations).
One has to ask whether the neocons of the Bush Administration are on the job. No real pressure is coming from Washington, and Bush’s approach is pathetically weak. Putin is buying them off with a commitment to take our used nuclear fuel off our hands and by seductive temporizing over the Iranian nuclear issue. If Bush were to stand up to Putin as President Reagan did to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, Putin would be unable to get away with the mayhem he is undertaking in Russia and its former empire.
Richard Nixon once said of Bush senior that the world would ask, “Who lost Russia?” (an echo of his own 1950s question about China) if he did not increase aid to Moscow. Now the question of who lost Russia comes up again. And the answer, surprisingly is President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Rice.