- The Washington Times - Monday, January 2, 2006

“This year Russia has become a different country. It is no longer a democratic country. It is no longer a free country,”Andrei Illarionov, President Vladimir Putin’s top economic adviser, said last week before he resigned. This was a dramatic and exceedingly rare act of public defiance by a major Russian public official.

More than four years after President Bush looked into Mr. Putin’s soul and found a man he could do business with, Russia is sliding into the abyss economically, politically and geopolitically. Soviet-era revanchism is on the rise, economic liberty is in peril, restrictions on civil society are tightening, and arms sales and ill-advised gestures to rogue states and brutalizers are ongoing.

The country re-nationalized about a third of its energy sector. It began routing major oil projects toward geopolitical favorites. It is enacting a new law to force non-governmental organizations to re-register under tightened restrictions. It long ago broke the will of the Russian media. Geopolitically, Russia has renewed ties with Syria with gestures like the sale of anti-aircraft weaponry. It is troublingly cordial with an Iran rushing headlong toward nuclear weapons. It was on the wrong side of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. It participated in first-ever military exercises with China, part of an ongoing effort to cultivate rising authoritarians to the East.

In the West, it sometimes takes a dramatic move like Mr. Illarionov’s to galvanize debate. But it’s not at all clear that can happen in Russia, where Mr. Illarionov has now concluded he was wrong to sign on to Mr. Putin’s government in the hopes of salvaging democracy in a country with a history of oppression and misrule.

“In April 2000, when I accepted the president’s invitation to take this post, we were talking about carrying out policies that would broaden economic freedom for Russian citizens — a policy that would push for the quickest possible economic development,” he told reporters this week. It “never came to be. Over the past two years we’ve seen a change away from what I would even call a mainstream policy — one that maybe wasn’t liberal, but had certain rational elements that were possible to support. But then came a different policy … the main, central aspect of which is a corporate state.”

This is precisely what Westerners have been concerned about all along: a new statist Russia that stifles liberties at home and favors authoritarians abroad. Mr. Putin — who has brushed off outsiders worrying about this publicly the last several years — is now hearing it from his own advisers. If even they have concluded that Russia is beyond the pale, then the picture is indeed a grim one.

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