Fred Hiatt, writing in the Washington Post:
On a recent visit to Italy, President Vladimir Putin was asked about a Russian newspaper report that he was divorcing his wife of many years to marry a 24-year-old rhythmic gymnast famous in Russia for her lithe beauty.
Putin denied the report in his usual charming way, scolding the media "with their snotty noses and their erotic fantasies." Then the newspaper that published the rumor was shut down.
Or, to be more precise, the newspaper that published the rumor, in a paroxysm of self-loathing and czar-love, shut itself down. And a few days later, just to make sure, the lower house of parliament, or Duma, approved a law, by a vote of 339 to 1, allowing authorities to shutter any other newspaper that dared to print such reports again.
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.
So it should not be surprising that leaders of small and even medium-size democracies on Russia's borders feel nervous as they see Putin challenging their sovereignty and threatening their futures. Estonia has endured cyber-attacks; Georgia's exports to Russia have been blocked; Ukraine has been told that it will be targeted by nuclear missiles should it think of joining NATO and watched as its president was mysteriously poisoned and nearly killed.
"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."
Georgia's foreign minister, David Bakradze, came to Washington last week to make the same point. "It's not just about Georgia," he said. "It's the first time the Russians think they are powerful enough to change borders in post-Soviet space. . . . If they are not stopped, they will go to the end."
It's quite possible that the Kremlin does not in fact want to absorb and take responsibility for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, at least not now. But undoubtedly Russia took note last month when, at Germany's insistence, and purely out of deference to Putin, NATO deferred Georgia and Ukraine's request for "membership action plans" -- one step on a long road to possible membership. Russia saw NATO's hesitation "as a green light," Ilves said. "It is not the signal being given, but it is taken that way."
U.S. and allied officials, including in Germany, objected last week to Russia's decree on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as did all three U.S. presidential candidates. Maybe that will be enough, for now. But President Putin will soon become not only party chairman but also prime minister, in charge of implementing the decree he has just issued. The goals of provoking the Georgians into intemperate action, while persuading the Germans that it's all too much trouble to get involved -- those will not recede.
Meanwhile, the lovely and flexible Alina Kabaeva has been installed as a United Russia member of parliament, or Duma deputy. Are relations between Chairman Putin and Deputy Kabaeva anything more than comradely? Don't look for answers in a Russian newspaper anytime soon.