Back in the United States, George W. Bush was delivering thumping speeches to ecstatic crowds about how "the world is becoming more free" thanks to his administration's policies. But in central Moscow last week, on a narrow street outside the general prosecutor's office, a handful of demonstrators took a different view of the status of freedom in Russia under Bush's close ally and friend Vladimir Putin. "Our society is now lurching toward a dictatorship," said one protester, Vladimir Ulas. "Putin is making a mockery of democracy." Who was this brave voice, defending the principles that America holds dear? Ulas is the first secretary of the Moscow city committee of the Communist Party.
Such is the ironic trajectory of post-Soviet Russia these days. As President Putin continues to move his country away from democracy--putatively in an effort to stop future terrorist attacks--the Russian people's former oppressors, the Communist Party, are among the few voices still speaking out against his actions, if squeakily. Last week, in one of his boldest moves yet, Putin revived some of the cardinal structures of the failed Soviet Union. He announced that the Kremlin--not local voters--will start choosing governors by the end of the year. He also plans to make changes to Russia's political system that will deny voters the power to directly choose representatives in Parliament. Meanwhile, lawmakers loyal to Putin are proposing a raft of security measures that would further empower the KGB's successor, the FSB, restrict citizens' movement within Russia and enlist thousands of volunteers to act as the government's eyes and ears.
Almost as noteworthy as Putin's power play was the fact that there was barely a peep of protest about it throughout Russia. Boris Yeltsin, Putin's predecessor and Russia's first (some say only) democratically elected president, spoke out for the first time since his retirement to criticize the course of events--but he did so from a position of unassailable strength as the country's former ruler. More telling was the response of the governors themselves, who leapt to praise the move. The tiny protest of Moscow's communists was the only known public demonstration--kept small by a city order allowing only 20 people to gather--and was largely ignored by Russia's increasingly restricted media. On TV and in newspapers, commentators talked bluntly about the need for a return to Soviet methods after a horrific series of terror attacks, especially the hostage takeover of a school in Beslan that left at least 338 children and adults dead. "This crisis presented a good opportunity," said one analyst known for her sources within the Kremlin, Olga Kryshtanovskaya. "The idea is to take some of the best methods of ruling a big country that the U.S.S.R. had to offer--a more authoritarian approach. And, at the same time, to have a market economy."
President Bush offered only a mild, indirect rebuke: "As governments fight the enemies of democracy, they must uphold the principles of democracy." Behind the scenes, U.S. officials were just as casual. Putin's actions are "not surprising," one senior Bush official who deals with Russia remarked offhandedly. "Russia is not a democratic society." The official said that for Russians, the quality of their democracy matters less now than their fear of terror--and of the national disintegration that terrorists like the Chechen separatist Shamil Basayev could provoke. "Putin and his cohort, [Defense Minister Sergei] Ivanov, saw the breakup of the Soviet Union. Now they're worried that Russia is going to break up. This fear is not hypothetical." One argument the Americans can't make is that Putin is defying popular will. A recent survey found that 82 percent of Russians favor increased police document checks, 92 percent favor travel restrictions and 65 percent approve greater control over the press. Some Moscow analysts predict that Putin's next step--also in the name of fighting terrorism--will be to try to change the Russian Constitution with an eye toward extending his own term beyond 2008, or carve some other new, more powerful role for himself.
In any case, the United States is unlikely to stand in Putin's way. By most accounts, Bush and Putin's longstanding warm feelings for each other remain undimmed by the controversy. After Putin angrily denounced U.S. pressure to negotiate with the Chechens at a meeting with journalists, he was asked about Bush. Putin's tone warmed as he put his hand over his chest. "Bush is a good man," he said. Increasingly the two leaders see the war against terrorists in the same harsh light, as a give-no-quarter struggle of good against evil.
America's troubles in Iraq--in which most Russians take clear delight--seem to mark a trend that could make things easier for Putin. Washington's democracy-crusading neocons have largely been discredited, at home and abroad. Even as he cracks down on civil liberties--in the name of terror, like the United States--Putin has also taken steps to reassure the outside world. Just last week he announced that the so-called ring fence preventing foreigners from investing in Russia's giant Gazprom natural-gas conglomerate would soon be lifted--a long-sought measure that is bound to send the Russian stock market upward. Behind the scenes, though, the Kremlin appears to be preparing a complementary move to sell the production assets of the embattled independent oil company Yukos to a state-owned petroleum giant called Rosneft. Last week also brought news Rosneft would in turn be merged into Gazprom--creating Russia's (and one of the world's) biggest energy company, controlled by the Kremlin. Analysts likened it to "a Russian Aramco," after the Saudi state oil company that calls the shots in OPEC. This, too, is Putin's new-style Sovietism.
For Bush, the greatest danger is that his old friend overreaches. Some U.S. officials are concerned by Putin's declaration that he plans to embrace another of Bush's antiterror tactics: pre-emptive strikes. Most observers believe that Putin has his eye on the Pankisi Gorge in neighboring Georgia, where Chechen rebels are believed to be hiding. Georgian officials, perhaps to forestall just such an attack, announced Saturday that Georgian and Russian forces are conducting joint helicopter patrols in the mountainous border region. But if that doesn't satisfy Putin, he probably won't find Bush standing in his way. In a sign that Washington might tacitly condone a pre-emptive strike, the U.S. ambassador to Georgia last week acknowledged that the Pankisi Gorge was a rebel haven. Next move, Putin.