- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 28, 2004

BEIJING. — The latest terrorist attacks in Russia have provoked reactions in China fundamentally different from those in America. Most Chinese regarded the murders of hundreds of schoolchildren in Beslan School No. 1 as Russia’s September 11 and sympathized with President Vladimir Putin’s “crackdown” against terror. Of course, Tiananmen Square and the brutal repression of student protests in 1989 color Chinese attitudes toward government control of crises at the expense of civil liberties.

The view from the United States is decidedly different. If, despite a “special relationship,” Britain and the United States can be described as two nations divided by a common language, then the divide between Russia and America is larger than the Grand Canyon. How much that gap will be widened by the presidential campaign and the pressure from both left and right to challenge Moscow and its perceived abandonment of democracy has yet to be determined.

Currently, Mr. Putin’s actions to consolidate power are viewed in America as a dangerous lurch toward authoritarianism and the bad old days of the Soviet Union. In the wake of Chechen terror attacks that also downed two Russian airliners, killing all aboard, Mr. Putin has ordered fundamental changes to the governing structure. Russia’s 89 governors will be appointed, not elected, and the public will vote for parties rather than individuals in future elections for the Duma (Russia’s Congress). With a large majority in the Duma and public approval ratings of about 70 percent, Mr. Putin, who is a former KGB agent and mayor of St. Petersberg, clearly is Russia’s strong man and is growing stronger.

A considerable number of American columnists, academics and politicians have sounded the alarm over Mr. Putin’s latest moves. In their view, Russia is sliding backward. The Russian government’s bungling of the Beslan horror, its withholding of information from the public and muzzling (or detention) of some of the press were cited as evidence to justify these fears. A few American columnists have gone as far as to liken Putin to Napoleon using a failed assassination attempt (by a bomb) and Hitler the Reichstag fire to seize power.

But what is happening? Is Mr. Putin a Lenin without goatee engineering a coup — a serious politician acting decisively in a crisis — or are there other explanations? Given that America’s track record in understanding Russia and the Soviet Union has not been particularly impressive, a conclusion that could easily apply elsewhere, these questions are important. And, if future U.S.-Russian relationships are to be constructive, getting the facts right is essential.

For much of the Cold War, America believed the Soviet Union to be the proverbial 10-foot tall giant — an all-powerful Russian military, tightly controlled from Moscow. In fact, the Russian military was perhaps only five foot nine or 10 and it did not have all of its vital organs fully developed. Too often, ideological convictions of American administrations and Congress prevented realistic assessment.

This was particularly true of President Kennedy, who, despite incontrovertible evidence of Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to cut back Soviet defense spending, still was determined to increase America’s nuclear and conventional forces dramatically. And America’s Vietnam interlude was largely based on the mistaken presumption that what happened in Southeast Asia would prove decisive in the Cold War struggle. Fortunately, that was not the case.

Mr. Putin’s handling of oligarch billionaire Mikhail Khodorhovsky, chairman of the oil giant Yukos, offers a useful insight. For at least three years, Yukos paid no taxes, clearly breaking the law. Mr. Khodorhovsky tried to eclipse Mr. Putin by obtaining the prime ministership through his wealth and “buying” members of the Duma, something in corrupt Russia that is all too easy to do. In fact, it cost only a few hundred dollars to bribe airline officials and guards to permit the two Chechen suicide bombers to board the doomed aircraft.

Mr. Putin saw no option except to eliminate this rival. Mr. Khodorhovsky was arrested for income tax evasion, the same ploy our feds used to put gangster Al Capone away nearly 70 years ago. This was not Jeffersonian democracy at work. But it is how politics is often played around the world. The contrived controversy over President Bush’s service in the Air National Guard and Sen. John Kerry’s in Vietnam demonstrates that America is not pure either.

For the time being, the United States must take a hard, objective look at Russia. It must understand that all democracies are neither equal nor identical. It may be that Mr. Putin is a despot-in-waiting. However, there is no need to make that determination yet. To begin this process, whoever wins the White House in November should hold an early meeting with Putin to determine what may lie ahead. Rushing to judgment is a sure way to err. Americans must understand that and act with a dispassion too often lacking from our politics.

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