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Moscow Times
October 5, 2004
Rolling Back Democracy
By Pavel Felgenhauer

President Vladimir Putin is rolling back democracy in Russia. Last week, Putin's close aide Vladislav Surkov made clear that regional legislatures that fail to endorse the Kremlin's gubernatorial nominations will be dissolved. He also declared that the president's political opponents constitute a "fifth column" aimed at ensuring Russia's defeat in the war against terror.

The judiciary is also being placed under full Kremlin control. Freedom of the press has been erased by censorship. Many observers describe this process as neo-Stalinism, but the Kremlin, while expanding its control over the economy, continues to pursue market reforms and has no plans for complete nationalization. Putin obviously regrets the collapse of the Soviet Union, but he is also in essence an anti-communist.

Rather than rebuilding the past, Russia is evolving into a fascist state along the lines of Benito Mussolini's Italy. As was the practice in Mussolini's fascist corporate state, Putin on the one hand is dismantling representative democracy, while on the other he has announced the creation of an unelected "public chamber" that would oversee the government bureaucracy. The new chamber would partially replace the State Duma, now dominated by a single party, helping to create an illusion of pluralism.

Russia's transformation to fascism is superficially connected with the Beslan tragedy and the need to close ranks in the fight against terrorism. But the idea of creating a permanent national unity in addition to the pro-Kremlin United Russia party arose long before Beslan. In a number of major speeches, Putin has called for the unification of Russia in order to build a strong, modern state. It is now clear that Putin's conception of unity does not include political pluralism or representative democracy.

The Kremlin has offered the fifth column within Russia a choice: Shut up and join us or face the consequences. Western governments face a much more complex dilemma. In the 1920s and 1930s, they proved incapable of countering both the fascist and communist threats simultaneously. Now they must balance the threat of a fascist Russia against that of international Islamist terrorism.

Many in the West once advocated a working relationship with Adolf Hitler and Mussolini. Left-wing journalists and academics supported Stalinism. Today, a pro-Putin coalition has emerged, made up of wealthy Western businessmen interested in exploiting Russia's natural resources along with left-wing journalists and academics. Their main argument is this: If Josef Stalin, the totalitarian monster, was a key ally in defeating Hitler, why should Putin not be a key ally in the war against terrorism? They often add that close cooperation with the West could lead Putin to restrain his penchant for authoritarianism.

U.S. President George W. Bush expressed this Western ambivalence during last week's presidential debate. Bush boasted of his good relationship with "Vladimir," and announced: "He's a strong ally in the war on terror." At the same time, Bush criticized Putin's undemocratic policies: "I don't think it's okay and said so publicly."

After 9/11, Putin phoned Bush to offer his condolences and tacitly agreed not to oppose the U.S. operation in Afghanistan. Putin has since claimed that the ugly war in Chechnya is Russia's main contribution to the anti-terror alliance. Direct command and control links between Chechen rebels and al-Qaida have never been confirmed, however. Chechen terrorism is fueled mostly by internal causes, but Islamists worldwide have used Russian repression in the region to stoke enthusiasm for their cause -- and to attract new recruits.

In fact, the Kremlin's version of the anti-terrorist coalition and "eliminating double standards" amounts to a modification of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact: The West supports Russian policy in the Caucasus and recognizes the entire former Soviet Union (excluding the Baltics) as Russia's zone of special interests. We concentrate on establishing our dominion in this zone, and Bush can do whatever he likes elsewhere.

There has been much discussion of the conflict between pro-Western "liberals" and the chekists within the Kremlin in recent years. Surkov, considered a leading liberal, has now revealed himself to be the main intellectual driving force behind the fascist transformation of Russia. The various Kremlin factions turn out to be very much of a piece. The liberals seem to think that a fascist state can be built with Western consent, while the siloviki do not trust the old enemy. We will soon find out which group is right.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.