Vladimir Putin - What a Guy

For anyone who hasn't been paying attention, Russia has been sliding back to authoritarianism over the last dozen years. The military-industrial complex is extensive; cronyism in politics is king.

"The humiliation of Akhmed Bilalov, 42," wrote the Guardian, "stamped the president's authority over the 2014 Sochi Games and underlined the importance [Putin] attaches to the global event he hopes will show how far Russia has come since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991."

Russia will play host to the 2014 Winter Olympics. Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Sochi recently, checking on preparations. Mr. Putin was not pleased with progress.

In front of television cameras, Putin ridiculed Bilalov - vice-president of Russia's Olympic committee - for being behind on construction. Afterward he sacked him.

What a guy, Mr. Putin.

For anyone who hasn't been paying attention, Russia has been sliding back to authoritarianism over the last dozen years. The military-industrial complex is extensive; cronyism in politics is king. The FSB (formerly KGB) is active. Vladimir Putin is a man with a vision. According to a new report issued by the human rights organisation Freedom House, "Step by step, Putin has pushed through measures to deter public demonstrations, smear and limit funding for nongovernmental organizations, and place restrictions on the Internet."

Two things are striking about these developments.

First is how Putinism - we are talking increasingly about a system and culture, not merely about a ma - so frequently gets a pass in the West. The United States has pursued the last four years a policy intended to 're-set' relations with Moscow, a kind of constructive engagement with the Kremlin. That policy has failed. The EU's Moscow strategy has been equally feeble. Note: Europe depends on Russia for 25 per cent of its natural gas needs. I just had coffee with the national security adviser to an East European prime minister. Parts of the former Soviet empire are deeply concerned that Russia will manage with energy today what it did with tanks during the Cold War.

Putin's apologists in the West often insist that Russian culture is not conducive to Western democracy; so why fuss and fret? Of course, culture matters. After 70 years of Soviet Communism, no one thought this transition would be easy.

But we've been here before. Democracy was once said to be impossible in places like Spain and Portugal (and Latin America) because of Catholic authoritarian traditions. After the Second World War, America's top Japan expert, a former ambassador to Tokyo named Joseph Grew, argued that hopes for Japanese democracy were misplaced, foolish, and naive. For years in the US, segregationists argued that blacks were uninterested and incapable of participation in the democratic process and civic life.

To the point about today's Russia. If Russians don't care about democracy, why does Putin spend so much time and energy curbing and quelling dissent? If it's truly only a small group of pro-Western rabble rousers, why bother? In fact, that new Freedom House reports says, "Arrests, arbitrary detentions and home raids targeting opposition figures are occurring on a level not seen since Soviet times."

The second striking thing about developments in Russia is how much Putin and his allies have learned about the art of repression. There's nothing soft about Putin's Russia, to be sure. I was in Moscow end of November when a 28-year-old television news presenter in one of the regions was assassinated, shot in the head with three bullets at close range by two hit men. Putin's Russia has become a gangster state.

But the Kremlin has learned a lot, too. There are softer, more sophisticated forms of intimidation and misdirection these days. Take media. Martha Bayles of Boston College writes of the "manipulations of cynical 21st-century authoritarians like Vladimir Putin, who use a free flow of infotainment to keep the masses amused and distracted, while crushing any political speech that might threaten his power." Continues Bayles:

"In Russia, the result is to make the media appear free -- not just to Russians who compare them to the bad old Soviet media, but also to Americans and others who unthinkingly equate the freedom to watch nude videos of Paris Hilton with the liberty to criticize the government."

What's the point here?

For one thing, when we get to those Winter Olympics in Sochi and Mr. Putin tries to show us how far Russia has come, don't buy it. Russia is moving backward.

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