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Monday, September 10, 2007

Getting Russia Right

Writing in The Age Dr. Robert Horvath, a research fellow at Melbourne University's Contemporary Europe Research Centre and author of The Legacy of Soviet Dissent: Dissidents, Democratisation and Radical Nationalism in Russia, brilliantly encapsulates the fundamental fraud that is Vladimir Putin's neo-Soviet foreign policy:

IT WAS ironic that Paul Keating's exhortation for us to extend a warm welcome to Vladimir Putin was published in The Age on September 5, the anniversary of one of the most tragic events in Russian history.

It was on that day in 1918 that the Bolshevik regime issued its decree on the "Red Terror", which authorised the secret police, the Cheka, to conduct extrajudicial executions and to incarcerate "class enemies" in concentration camps. Many decades later, prisoners in the Gulag would mark that day with ceremonies in memory of the victims of the "Red Terror", which they understood to be the source of the violence that culminated in the mass slaughter of the 1930s.

In honouring Putin, Keating would like us to remember the sacrifices of the Russian people during the Second World War, but he forgets that Putin is a product of a repressive apparatus that has also devastated the lives of tens of millions of Russians.

No event was more symbolic of Russia's democratic revolution in August 1991 than the toppling of the statue of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka. But it cannot have been a pleasant experience for Putin, who has repeatedly expressed pride in his "Chekist" past. As the great Russian human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov has pointed out, it is as if a German chancellor had boasted nostalgically about his days in the Gestapo.

Keating is not the first Western political figure to flatter the prejudices of the Russian President. German chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder notoriously proclaimed Putin "a flawless democrat", while George Bush looked at him and got a "sense of his soul".

If Keating's blandishments are unoriginal, his readiness to blame the West for Russia's recent belligerence is extraordinary. Echoing the rhetoric of the most paranoid Russian radical nationalists, Keating describes Russia as a "state under permanent suspicion", whose pleas for inclusion in international institutions were left unheeded. Instead, the West rashly extended NATO to its borders and surrounded it with anti-missile defences. Only in response to this "provocation" did Putin resume long-distance patrols by Russian bombers.

In fact, post-Soviet Russia was welcomed into international institutions. Along with other ex-Soviet republics, Russia became part of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Despite the weakness of its democratic institutions, it was also admitted to the Council of Europe. Despite its economic collapse, it was invited in 1994 to participate in post-summit talks of the G7, which in 1997 was renamed the G8 to admit Russia. Despite the obvious menace represented by the rise of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, NATO rebuffed the demands of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland for early membership, and created its "partnership for peace" to appease the sensitivities of Russian nationalists. Only in response to a sustained lobbying campaign by figures such as Vaclav Havel did NATO finally yield to the wishes of these new democracies.

The primary reason for the Kremlin's sabre-rattling on the international stage is to be found not in the West, but in the peculiar brand of neo-totalitarianism that is emerging in Putin's Russia.

Today, the Russian state is dominated by "Chekists" and other representatives of the Soviet-era security apparatus, who have systematically destroyed the fragile structures of an emerging democracy. During the past seven years, they have stifled the independent media, emasculated parliament, intimidated lawyers and imposed rigid controls on civil society.

If the murders of some of Putin's most outspoken critics remain unsolved, there is no doubt about the Kremlin's responsibility for the carnage in Chechnya. The razing of Grozny, a city of 400,000 before the first Russian invasion, is an atrocity that has no parallel in European history since the Nazis' destruction of Warsaw. In accordance with Putin's promise, in criminal slang, "to waste the terrorists in the shithouse", his security forces unleashed a campaign of "disappearances" on a scale that Human Rights Watch designated as a crime against humanity.

The justification for this dirty war was the alleged role of Chechen terrorists in the 1999 apartment bombings that killed some 300 Russians in their sleep and propelled Putin from obscurity to the heights of power. But there is compelling evidence to suggest that Putin's security forces have a case to answer about their role in the bombings.

As it tightens the screws on Russia's beleaguered NGO sector, the Kremlin has sponsored an array of patriotic organisations to create the appearance of public support that uncompetitive elections no longer provide. The most prominent is "Nashi" (Ours), a kind of revived Communist Youth organisation, whose thugs have specialised in intimidating foreign diplomats.

In the process, they have lent legitimacy to the xenophobic violence of more extreme elements such as the "Movement against Illegal Immigration", whose activists played a conspicuous role in the horrific anti-Caucasian rampage in the town of Kondopoga. By aggressive posturing on the world stage, Putin is responding to the resentments of this newly mobilised nationalist constituency.

Last year, Nashi conducted a campaign of harassment against the British ambassador, Anthony Brenton, for the "unfriendly gesture" of giving a brief speech about civil society to the founding congress of the "Other Russia", which unites some of the most important figures in Russia's democratic movement. It is a pity that the diplomats at Australia's Moscow embassy have not demonstrated the same courage and principle. Instead of ingratiating ourselves with Putin, we should remind him that we are not indifferent to the fate of democracy in Russia.

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