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The west's growing disillusionment with Vladimir Putin

By Carol Devine-Molin
web posted December 20, 2004

Russian President Vladimir Putin is now viewed as an enigma by most Americans. Oh, what a difference a few years can make in this rapidly changing geopolitical landscape! When President George W. Bush first met with Russian President Putin in 2001, Bush was tremendously impressed with him -- Bush stated: "I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul", which certainly conveyed hopeful expectations of a Vladimir Putin as democratic reformer and ally of the US. President Bush quickly dubbed the Russian President "Pootie Poot", and thought that he had found a man with whom he could forge a cooperative relationship. And, at first, there was reason for optimism about Putin. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 -- in a show of solidarity -- Putin was exceedingly helpful to the US in the fight against international terrorism. Unfortunately, things have gone terribly awry. Although Putin has generated impressive economic changes in Russia, his overall progress in support of democratization has been lacking.

Vladimir PutinThe Bush-Putin relationship is now strained by the Kremlin's proclivity to enact political repression, both at home and in former Soviet states. Let's focus on the Ukraine which has become the center of worldwide attention in recent weeks. Two competing groups are now vying for power in the Ukraine -- the reformists of the "orange revolution" and those seeking to maintain the status-quo with Russia. The former, the pro-democracy faction spearheading Ukrainian self-determination, free elections and clean government, clearly has the momentum among the populace. In any event, the recent election results for the presidency were apparently rigged and subsequently tossed out by the Ukraine's Supreme Court, with an attending order to repeat the runoff on December 26. To make matters so much worse, the Kremlin seems to have very dirty hands in this entire matter.

It's widely believed that Putin and his surrogates involved themselves in atrocious behaviors vis-à-vis the recent presidential election in the Ukraine. The Kremlin is not only implicated in election fraud, but in attempts to assassinate Viktor Yushchenko, the "orange revolution" candidate. Yushchenko was poisoned with a pure form of dioxin found in TCDD, an element of Agent Orange. The amount of dioxin in Yushchenko's blood is the second highest on record, and very well could have been deadly. At the very least, the poisoning has disfigured a once handsome man, and shortened his lifespan by years. As a result of the poisoning, Yushchenko experienced severe and disfiguring skin lesions, in addition to considerable internal damage and pain.

Needless to say these entire circumstances have infuriated the free world. The poisoning of Yushchenko was almost certainly perpetrated by his opponent's camp, which was working in collusion with the Kremlin. Many believe that the poisoning would not have been carried-out unless Putin himself granted approval. It would be fair to say that the Kremlin's little plan to destroy Yushchenko backfired big-time. Yushchenko is now even more popular having survived the Kremlin's unconscionable actions. And his "orange revolution" continues to garner an increasing number of proponents. Putin's man, presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych, will in all probability lose the upcoming election that will be closely monitored. Because of Russia's shenanigans, the Ukraine will undoubtedly be more eager to align itself with the EU and NATO in a pro-western mode.

Putin is beginning to act out in a very nasty and unseemly way on the world stage. Only a few weeks ago, Putin had the unmitigated gall to refer to America as a "dictatorship" in the realm of foreign policy, and he further compared our nation to a "kind but strict uncle in a pith helmet". Why? In short, Putin is miffed because the Bush administration had the audacity to ask Russia to stop meddling in the affairs of former Soviet states including the Ukraine. Conversely, Putin believes that it's actually the US that is inappropriately "interfering" in the Russian-Ukrainian relationship. Essentially, Putin wants to abuse his Ukrainian political opponents without criticism. Because of myriad cultural, historical and economic reasons, Putin is intent on holding the Ukraine firmly within the orbit of Russian influence, whether by hook or crook. Any thinking person would surmise that Putin is developing imperialistic designs, somewhat akin to those seen during the prior Soviet epoch. This spells trouble.

According to Russian scholar Michael McFaul, associate professor of political science and a Hoover Fellow at Stanford University, Putin is of a dual-mind when it comes to implementing much needed reforms: "Since becoming Russia's President in 2000, Vladimir Putin has simultaneously pushed forward a positive agenda of economic reform and a negative agenda of political repression. It's a sad story of one step forward, two steps back, and if it continues it will threaten the existence of a free Russian society…The list of Putin's attacks on democracy is striking in both its range and depth. He has conducted an inhumane war in Chechnya, seized control of all national television networks, emasculated the power of the Federation Council, tamed regional barons who once served as a powerful balance to Yeltsin's presidential rule, arbitrarily used the law to jail or chase away political foes, removed candidates from electoral ballots, harassed and arrested NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) leaders and weakened Russia's independent political parties" (Center for American Progress website, 6/24/04).

In a recent article by McFaul at the Weekly Standard magazine, he writes: "In the Ukraine, Putin made his first aggressive attempt to consolidate ‘managed democracy' -- his advisers' term for Russia's new regime-type in another country. Hoping to prevent a democratic breakthrough like those in Serbia in 2000 and Georgia in 2003, Putin's administration orchestrated a giant effort, first to aid Yanukovych's electoral campaign, then after the vote to blur the world's understanding of the results".

Incredibly, Putin refers to his awful manipulations and oppressive behaviors as "managed democracy"? Clearly, Putin really doesn't grasp what freedom is all about.

President Putin is now exhibiting his true colors. Today's Russia reflects a new-styled autocratic rule, somewhat reminiscent of the former Soviet era but tolerant of select economic reforms. Moreover, this Russian crackdown on freedom is distasteful to the West, particularly in this age of democratization. Although it's an often cited cliché, "past is prologue" seems very apropos of the emerging circumstances in Russia. It's almost impossible to forget that Putin was a bigwig in the KGB not that many years ago. The KGB apparatchiks were extremely dedicated to the Soviet cause. As for Putin, I suppose an entrenched mindset that seeks to sustain and grow an empire, and suppress human rights, is difficult to cast aside.

One salient question for America to ponder is this: Could Russia's autocratic ways conceivably lead to another version of the Cold War? Sure, it's possible, considering some of Putin's recent remarks that were an assault upon America and indicative of his hard-line mentality. I think it would be fair to say that Putin's failure to enact democratic reforms is beginning to sour the West on his governance. Who knows? In protest of Putin, maybe I will even have to revive my impression of Natasha's famous lines, "Yes, Fearless Leader" and "Boris, kill moose and squirrel".

Carol Devine-Molin is a regular contributor to several online magazines.

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