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Jewish World Review Feb. 28, 2000 /22 Adar I, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Bubba Shoves Russia toward dictatorship --
IS RUSSIA HEADED for dictatorship? Arguably, it trembles on the brink. And the Clinton administration has done everything possible to give it a careless shove.

How else to interpret President Clinton's gushing praise of Vladimir Putin, Russia's acting president? In Putin, the president said, "Russia has someone capable of being a very strong, and effective, and straightforward leader."

Straightforward? Even accepting that Clinton is the last person on earth to judge honesty, one might have expected a bit more restraint. It is obvious that Putin has propelled himself to popularity on the blood of thousands of innocent men, women and children in Chechnya, and hundreds or thousands of hapless Russian troops. But Clinton has been deaf to the anguished cries of Chechens. He described the Russian destruction of that city as "liberation."

Andrei Piontkovsky, a fellow at the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow and a leading liberal Russian journalist, was in Washington, D.C., last week offering a slightly different view of Putin's "straightforwardness."

Putin, Piontkovsky explains, is the figure chosen by the oligarchs from Yeltsin's group. Russia's business and government elite has become a feudal battleground in which competing gangs of wealthy and powerful interests vie over who will hold power.

A few months ago, with Yeltsin ailing and scandal swirling around him and his family, the oligarchs recognized that they were in a desperate situation. Enter Putin. A relatively low-ranking KGB officer in his former life, the 47-year-old Putin has already demonstrated that he is willing to employ methods that can best be called "Brezhnevian."

The bombings of Moscow apartment buildings a few months ago spread rage and fear among Russians everywhere. The government of Vladimir Putin both exploited and fanned these passions to the fullest, promising swift retribution against the Chechen terrorists it claimed were responsible. This was a set-up, Piontkovsky explains, and all of the liberal elements in Russia know it. There was never any evidence that Chechen "terrorists" planted those bombs. But the same Russian secret police who lured Chechens into Dagestan in order to give the Russian Army an excuse to pound Grozny were not above placing those Moscow bombs as well.

Like the Reischstag fire that propelled Hitler to power, the bombings in Moscow have succeeded very well. The Russian people are delirious with war fever. The government claims that Russian troops are attacking only "terrorists," but in reality, the Russians are destroying innocent civilians -- and with gusto. At least 100,000 Chechen civilians have been made homeless, and human-rights groups are recording tales of rape and torture.

Ordinary Russians choose to believe a different version of reality, and even openly ponder the use of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons against the hated rebels. Putin has been elevated by this aggressive war into a national hero ("Russia's Savior?" asked one headline), to the point where some are wondering if he will even face opposition in the March 26 presidential election.

President Clinton's virtual endorsement of Putin also corresponds to what should be a tense moment in US/Russian relations because of the disappearance of Andrei Babitsky. Babitsky is a journalist who worked for Radio Liberty, the American-owned radio station that helped to win the Cold War.

As a war correspondent, Babitsky was one of the only reporters who was attempting to tell the Russian people the truth about what their troops are doing in Chechnya. This did not endear him to the Russian government. He was kidnapped a month ago by Russian forces -- a clear assault on press freedom and a worrisome sign from a "strong leader" who is dusting off monuments to Yuri Andropov.

Putin may not be a Hitler or a Stalin, but Russia very much resembles Weimar Germany right now. A few kleptocrats have grown rich, but Russia's gross domestic product has shrunk by 40 percent during the last seven years.

About 80 percent of Russia's farmers are bankrupt. And at least half of Russia's people are worse off than before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Crime is out of control. Health is deteriorating to disastrous levels. At such times, even people with strong democratic histories have been tempted by tyrants. Russia's democratic tradition has yet to be born. And the future looks quite bleak.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate