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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Putin Shows his Cards (Yup, They're All Marked)

Writing in the Seattle Post Intelligencer Lara Iglitzin, executive director of Henry M. Jackson Foundation in Seattle, explains how Putin has shown his true colors and why we must now show ours:

Russian President Vladimir Putin never really fooled most close observers of the Kremlin [LR: Sound like anyone you know?]. Anyone witnessing his steady accumulation of power in the hands of the central state -- so-called managed democracy -- saw a pattern of increasing media censorship, decreasing political pluralism, manipulated and controlled elections and a tight rein on economic actors.

Those concerned about human rights and democracy have been sounding the alarm for years. Political analysts in Russia and the West have been wondering how Putin would hold on to his powerful political seat, given the constitutional necessity for him to step down after two terms as president.

He stated publicly several times that he wouldn't serve a third term, and yet, no one quite believed it. Would he simply amend the constitution, using his total control of the Russian Parliament, stacked with his supporters? Would he do a power grab that would nevertheless be accepted by his populace? It was difficult to imagine that he would go quietly into the night, whiling away his senior years at his country dacha.

Last week, Putin showed his cards. In a stunning surprise, Putin used the United Russia political party congress -- the party most closely allied with Kremlin politics -- to accept an offer for him to lead that party's political slate in the upcoming parliamentary elections in December 2007.

Orchestrated just as broadly as in the old Stalin Communist Party days, a factory worker came forward to say: "You said you wouldn't serve a third term. To tell the truth, I didn't understand when you said that. I think the law can be changed ... . There are so many smart respected people here, let's think of a way for Vladimir Vladimirovich to remain president in 2008." To deafening applause, the next speaker formally asked the Russian president, who is not technically affiliated with United Russia, to head its party slate and later become prime minister, should the party gain power. The Central Elections Commission representatives present at the Party Congress quickly affirmed that this was fully in sync with existing laws.

Putin enjoys extraordinary public support, with an approval rating above 75 percent. With Putin on the top of United Russia's slate, already backed with the full force of the Kremlin with media support and political clout, it is assured of an overwhelming victory. Putin becomes prime minister, with a handpicked president (Putin himself nominated the non-entity Viktor Zubkov a few weeks ago) to be a figurehead. Putin can either beef up the premiership position or move back into the presidency after a brief pause -- and no constitutional changes are needed.

Comrades, this is not democracy. It's a bad sign when the Communist Party Deputy complains that the Kremlin party will erode democratic principles. Indeed, to Russia's South, the formerly Soviet country of Ukraine showed the region just last week what real democracy looks like when it is allowed to operate: a hard-fought, contested, free election where three candidates vied for power and two are neck and neck, one representing the Orange Revolution and the other representing the repressive Russian past.

We should not be fooled any longer by Putin's statements to the West about democracy. He has manipulated the process to ensure that a post-Putin era is only a future dream. A powerful, non-democratic Russia, dominated by one man and one state, will never respect human rights and democratic values. The United States must take notice of this Russian bear before it threatens us.

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