Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Round Two for the Terrorists

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, September 14, 2004 --  

Perhaps the only thing more horrifying than Vladimir Putin's recent power grab in Russia is the near absence of public opposition. Putin's proposed changes in his country's constitution would make the country's political system resemble its Soviet past more than anything that has existed in Russia since the collapse of communism in 1991. What we are talking about here is dictatorship, plain and simple, and once imposed, it will not be undone easily.

Putin plans to eliminate the direct election of provincial governors, and appoint them himself. Elections for the Russian parliament, the Duma, would no longer be based on individual candidates, under Putin's plan, but on Soviet-style party lists. Given the weakness of political parties in today's Russia, this effectively means the return to one-party rule. Putin's United Russia Party swept the last elections based largely on its power-connected pedigree. The party is nothing but a Putin-based entourage. It has no ideology, no history, and no identifiable constituency. Given that this same party holds the bulk of seats in the Duma, and the opposition is weak, passage of Putin's plans are a virtual certainty. Democracy in Russia is over.

This incredible loss of liberty follows a familiar pattern. The proposals have come in the wake of a horrific hostage crisis inside a school in the southern Russian city of Beslan that led to the deaths of over 300 children and their teachers. The killers committed their barbaric acts in the name of the independence movement in neighboring Chechenya, and the Russian government has rightfully condemned the perpetrators as terrorists. While only one tenth as many people were killed in the school as on September 11, 2001, Russia has been shaken with a horror comparable to that experienced by America. The public desire for increased security is similar to that which existed in America three years ago.

Even in America, a country with over 200 years of history with democracy, politicians were willing to sell individual liberties down the river after September 11th, and a frightened public was willing to go along. The Patriot Act was passed by Congress to expand law enforcement powers at the expense of civil rights. There was almost no word of public outrage, and almost no congressional debate. A similar public silence followed Attorney General John Ashcroft's imprisonment of U.S. citizens without charge as he simply declared them "enemy combatants."

Unlike America, however, Russia has no real tradition of democracy. The 13 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union have seen an experiment with elections and free speech, but they have also seen a huge amount of hardship and turmoil that has led many Russians to blame the democracy for their troubles. Russians' lack of faith in democracy explains why they there has been no public outrage to Putin's proposals. Russians, in essence, approve of his plans to impose a dictatorship. Such a democratic surrender is truly horrifying to watch.

The fact that Putin has been able to use a terrorist attack as a pretext to impose such a dictatorship shows that battles against terrorism can be more dangerous than terrorist threats themselves. When the Socialist Party won the Spanish elections following the train bombings earlier this year, many observers declared that it was the terrorists that had won the election. But such a change in government is nothing compared to what is happening in Russia. A giant nation armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons is turning its back on the West and its democratic system in response to terrorism.

In the end, everyone will lose. Everyone that is, except the terrorists.

Related Web Column:

Tragic Influence
Accepting a Terrorist-Installed Government
, March 16, 2004