The Angry Economist
RUSSIA—A friend of mine recently urged me to pay more attention to Russia, and he's right. With so many bad things happening all over the world, it is easy for those of us in the West to consider the democratization of the former Soviet Empire a done deal. Unfortunately, it's not, and based on what Vladimir Putin is trying to get away with, we in the West need to be more vigilant about "our friends" the Russians.
When one thinks about present-day Russia, it is important that we not forget its very recent history and its own leaders' wistful longing for the bad old days of the Soviet Union. Though he doesn't have the military anymore, former KGB chief turned "democratically" elected Russian President Vladimir Putin continues acting diplomatically as if his country still is a superpower, and the world community is letting him get away with it.
Consider the following: even though Putin and many of his lieutenants were implicated in the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal, and have been linked to trading arms with North Korea, they want to serve as lead negotiators to Iran over that country's nuclear weapons program. Further, right after assuming the largely ceremonial position as President of the Group of Eight Economic Partners, Putin promptly created a natural gas scare in Western Europe by cutting off shipments to Ukraine.
And let's be clear on who is running the economy in Russia: the same mob that was running it when the Soviets were in power. Though they call themselves a democracy, Russia is anything but, with no direct election of anyone save the President. An astute observer of the Soviet Union likened the way "communism" worked in Russia to a crime family: nothing got done, unless everybody along the way got a cut, especially the boss. If the boss didn't get his cut, or rather, was short changed on what he thought he was due, then there was hell to pay. Back then, the ultimate bosses were members of the Kremlin, and were usually connected, one way or another, to the KGB.
Today, that's pretty much still the case. Anyone who speaks out against Putin and his collection of thugs is systematically silenced. Though there's a war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia is still the most dangerous place in the world for working journalists, or rather, journalists who are not in the direct employ of Mr. Putin.
Ask the magnate who tried running against Putin for president last time, he's serving a twenty-year sentence in Siberia at hard labor for charges that Putin concocted to keep him out of the race. Like Soviet leaders of old, Putin can't stand to be challenged, and punishes anyone who dares cross him.
For the world, the danger of a resurgent Russia is that we get all the bad parts of the Cold War with none of the benefits. Back during the Cold War, we knew who our enemies were because behind the Iron Curtain, the Soviets kept their weapons away from the crazies. Now, they just want a piece of the action, regardless of who is buying their military technology.
The problem this poses for the rest of us is that Russia is a rogue state dressed up in democratic clothing. Ever since Boris Yeltsin rose to the Presidency, it has been Putin who kept him in power. When it was finally time for the old alcoholic to be ushered off the stage, who did he appoint at the last minute to finish his presidency? Why, none other than the man who orchestrated his fall: Vladimir Putin.
During the Presidency of the George H.W. Bush, many people said that they didn't trust him simply because before he got the top job, he ran the C.I.A. "A spook is always a spook," one of my liberal friends said, "you just can't trust them."
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