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Jewish World Review Sept. 24, 2004 / 13 Tishrei, 5765

Bill Schneider

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Putin's power grab | Here's the Bush Doctrine as stated by President Bush in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention: "This young century will be liberty's century. By promoting liberty abroad, we will build a safer world."

Here's the Putin Doctrine as stated by Russian President Vladimir Putin in a television address to his nation on September 13: "The fight against terrorism demands a deep reshaping of our policies. . . . One of the main, most important issues is the weakness of state executive powers."

With that, Putin made breathtaking moves to centralize power in Russia and cut off support for his opponents. Russia's governors will no longer be elected. Putin will appoint them. And in elections for parliament, Russians will no longer be able to vote for candidates, only parties. That way, fewer Putin critics will get in.

The justification — some would call it a pretext — for such sweeping changes? Two airline bombings, followed by this month's horrifying seizure of an elementary school by terrorists. More than 300 people, many of them schoolchildren, were killed at the school. The massacre was Russia's 9/11.

Putin's power grab goes way beyond Attorney General John Ashcroft's wildest dreams. It would appear to be a direct challenge to the Bush Doctrine. Bush might have responded by repeating what he said in 2003 to the National Endowment for Democracy: "In the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty." What Bush did say was more cautious: "I'm . . . concerned about the decisions that are being made in Russia that could undermine democracy in Russia."

During his 2000 campaign, Bush warned, "[The Clinton] administration has been sending all kinds of signals confirming Mr. Putin. We don't know enough about him." Then, after meeting Putin in June 2001, Bush said, "I found him very straightforward and trustworthy." He added, "We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul."

Russia stood by the United States after 9/11. And Bush has been effusive in his praise for Putin. When the Russian president visited Camp David in September 2003, Bush said, "I respect President Putin's vision for Russia — a country at peace within its borders and with its neighbors in the world, a country in which democracy and freedom and the rule of law thrive."

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Bush has a lot invested in Putin. Bush visited the Russian Embassy on September 12 to express his solidarity with Russia. He told the ambassador, "Please pass on my best wishes to President Vladimir Putin, a man who I admire." The next day, Putin announced his power grab.

Putin's move could be an extraordinarily dangerous development for Russia. In an interview published last week in Moscow News, Boris Yeltsin warned, "The strangling of freedoms, the rollback of democratic rights — this can only mean that the terrorists won." Putin's predecessor even articulated his own doctrine: "Only a democratic country can successfully lead a fight against terrorism."

Putin's move is also a dangerous development for the world. Chris Patten, external-relations commissioner of the European Union, expressed hope "that the government of the Russian federation will not conclude that the only answer to terrorism is to increase the power of the Kremlin."

Patten added, ominously, "Frankly, there is not much good history on the side of that proposition."

The White House was initially muted in its response to Putin's power grab. Secretary of State Colin Powell had previously criticized anti-democratic trends in Russia — for example, when Putin took over or closed independent television stations, jailed or drove into exile business leaders who opposed him, asserted control over the country's energy industry, handed out government assets to his allies, and turned the Russian parliament into a compliant legislature dominated by his supporters. In January, Powell wrote an article in the Russian newspaper Izvestia warning, broadly, that "Russia's democratic system seems not yet to have found the essential balance among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government."

This time, Powell is being more specific. On September 14, the secretary of State described Putin's policies as "pulling back on some of the democratic reforms . . . that have occurred in the past." He added, "Yes, we have concerns about it. And we want to discuss them with the Russians."

Under pressure to offer his own response, Bush said the next day, "As governments fight the enemies of democracy, they must uphold the principles of democracy."

The Russians, for their part, were dismissive of U.S. criticism. "The processes that are under way in Russia are our internal affair," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. "And it is at least strange that, while talking about a certain 'pulling back' on some of the democratic reforms in Russia, as [Powell] put it, he tried to assert yet again the notion that democracy can only be copied from someone's model." Lavrov added, "We, for our part, do not comment on the U.S. system of presidential elections." Ouch.

What is happening in Russia may be the most ominous development in the world this year. Think of it this way: In the past, which has presented a greater threat to the United States — a corrupt dictatorship in Iraq, or a corrupt dictatorship in Russia?

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© 2002, William Schneider