Putin’s “Methodical and Patient” Move Toward Dictatorship

Fred Hiatt has an opinion column in the Washington Post today entitled “The Gymnast and the Czar,” which makes light of the damaging effect of Russia’s creeping authoritarianism on emerging democracies in the post-Soviet sphere, and the refusal of the West to recognize these problems for fear of upsetting the entitled in Moscow:

It is no longer controversial to note that Putin “has led Russia into a harsh brand of authoritarianism with some fascist features,” as French scholar Pierre Hassner said in a speech last fall. But it’s worth recalling the methodical and patient way he crept toward dictatorship, because recent events raise fears that he is now creeping in the same way toward stifling the independence that Russia’s neighboring states have enjoyed since the Soviet Union fractured in 1991.

Putin did not announce, eight years ago, his intention to create an autocracy in which all television channels would be under Kremlin control; in which elections would be decided, by him, ahead of time; in which every major industrialist and provincial governor would dance to his tune and roving bands of nationalist youths would threaten, intimidate or beat up anyone who objected.He did not announce that by the time he gave up the presidency he would have created a replacement for the Communist Party of olden days — United Russia — and that he would graciously accept its chairmanship, though without deigning to join the party. (The only historical analogy that former Russian official Alfred Koch could find for that, Koch told me, was “the relationship between the Hebrews and their God during the exodus: God gave them the law, he led them out of Egypt, but the law was not binding on God.”)Putin did not preview any of this, but he did it, gradually and step by step. And for most of the journey, the Bush administration and other Western governments refused to acknowledge it publicly, or perhaps even to themselves. They fatuously compared 21st-century Russia with Stalin’s Soviet Union, as if the positive differences should be comforting. And when the negative trends became too obvious to ignore, they — particularly the Western Europeans — still hesitated to offend the bear. (…)”It’s clear that, for Russia, any formerly Communist country is a threat, if it opts for democracy, rule of law and human rights,” Estonia’s president, Toomas Ilves, told me during a recent visit to Washington.Now Putin has issued a decree establishing legal ties with the rulers of two breakaway regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. “A greater provocation is harder to imagine,” Ilves said, than telling Georgia’s government “you don’t have sovereignty over your own people.”