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A promising post-Soviet Russia

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted February 23, 2004

For a decade my colleagues at the Free Congress Foundation and I taught Russians about how to win elections and how to build a civil society. At the end of my final lecture I would always say, "We are not here to tell you what to do. We are here to tell you what we did that worked. But whether or not it will work for you is for you to determine. Ultimately you have to fashion a system which will work for you."

At these same training schools I was constantly asked about the Chilean model. Russians, despite their repression by a brutal Communist regime, were far better informed about politics than most Americans. They were fascinated by anti-Communist General Augusto Pinochet, who led Chile with an iron hand while permitting the free market system to flourish there. Again and again I was asked if Russia didn't need what citizens there called "an iron fist".

Vladimir PutinWell that is what Russia has right now. President Putin is about to be re-elected to another term. He has eliminated much of his political opposition. He has taken control of the television networks. He has cracked down on business corruption. He now has, in effect, a rubber stamp parliament known as the State Duma. But the free market in Russia is flourishing. The economy is growing significantly. Foreign investment has begun to flow into Russia. Real income of most ordinary folks is increasing.

While Putin is no absolute dictator as Pinochet was in his first years in office, he is the "iron fist" most Russians were looking for. Boris Yeltsin ruled over a Russia that had more freedom than it has now, but it was chaotic. Russians do not want chaos. Depending on which survey you believe in, Putin enjoys the support of anywhere from 70 to 85 per cent of the Russian population. His closest opponent in the upcoming election registers from 2 to 5 per cent.

Putin has fashioned the sort of system the Russian people want. Not everyone is happy. Chess Champion Gary Kasparov has founded a new political party with the objective of taking on Putin four years from now. By then, Kasparov figures the bloom will be off the rose. He complains that Putin has established a semi-dictatorship. United States Secretary of State Colin Powell recently upbraided Putin for his seeming lack of concern for political and human rights.

Former Army officer Ralph Peters, who specialized in Russian studies, writing in the New York Post compared Putin to Peter the Great. He was a Russian leader who shook things up while at the same time bringing stability and prosperity to this great land.

We should be concerned about what happens to Russia. But as Ed Lozansky, the President of the American University in Moscow, wrote in an open letter to President Bush in response to remarks made by Colin Powell, "Is it good policy and, moreover, is it in the United States interest to give a public dressing down to a nation which achieved tremendous and impressive positive results during this extremely short transitional period from one of the world's most repressive regimes to freedom?"

Lozansky suggested that it was unfair to criticize Russia for not achieving in a dozen years what it took Europe to accomplish in two hundred years. He opined that it would have been better for Powell to express his views privately. While Powell has suggested that freedom of the press has been diminished with Putin, Powell's comments were printed in Izvestia, the leading political newspaper in Russia.

Peters and Lozansky have a point.

Russia is finding its way. Had the chaos Yeltsin fostered continued, Russians might well have elected to really take a step backwards. Right now, under Putin, Russia is still moving forward albeit not necessarily in exactly the way we would like.

The important issue is this: We need Russia as an ally. If we are serious about the war on terror, then Russia is indispensable because she has a great understanding of what my colleague, Bill Lind, calls "Fourth Generation" warfare. That is the kind of warfare we are experiencing in the Middle East and in Iraq with the demise of the state's monopoly on war.

Putin has made it clear that he is an Orthodox Christian. He wants to see a revival of Christianity in Russia. The reason is Islam. He does not want Russia to become an Islamic state. America has a great interest in the revival of Christianity in Russia.

We should be concerned about some worrisome things Russian officials have said about what they call the "near abroad", which includes the Baltic States, Armenia, Georgia and Ukraine - all of which are also needed in the effort to blunt the advance of Islam.

The way to insure that these newly independent nations are not threatened is to invite Russia into NATO. We have advocated that before. We call for that again.

Russia is indeed finding its own way. But new churches continue to open and that is encouraging. Thousands of churches have been restored in recent years. People are free to leave the country. They are free to travel internally. They are free to work in whatever endeavor they wish. They do have a lively free press and even on Putin-controlled television comics joke about their President in Jay Leno fashion.

Under the Communists, if you went to one of the very few churches that were open, you would end your career. You had to have permission to travel more than 50 km from home. Only hard core Communists were permitted to travel abroad. If you joined the Communist party, you usually did reasonably well, but if you did not, you had little choice about what you did or where you did it. And jokes about Andropov on television? Forget about it! The comic would not live to repeat it. Finally, only elite members of the Communist party had decent goods available to them. Ordinary Russians had to stand in line for hours just to get supplies for basic needs. Now there are no shortages. No lines. True, things are expensive. But ordinary Russians can buy almost anything they want, and basic goods are abundant.

Russia has continued to move ahead. Their system may not end up looking the way we would prefer, but if we can count on Russia as an ally, why should we fret? We have had far worse allies when we were fighting the Soviets. Yes, let's keep the pressure on. Let's do it privately. And let's figure out how we can work more closely with Russia against the greatest threat of all: militant, radical Islam, which considers all of us, including Putin, infidels. We had better take that threat seriously.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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