Four nations in five days not a lot of time for the president of the United States to meet and greet all those diplomats and dignitaries lining up for a handshake. Just enough time, perhaps, to incite the Latvians in Riga, stir up trouble in the Caucasus, and, perhaps, take a spin around Putin’s driveway in the Russian president’s 1956 Volga. Yet somehow the POTUS managed to squeeze in a 35-minute meeting with a group of what the London Guardian described as “some of Mr. Putin’s more vocal critics” right before he had to dash to Red Square for the WWII commemoration ceremonies.
Bush’s acolytes will no doubt see this meeting as yet another manifestation of the president’s Reaganesque mindset and stature: the affable Hollywood actor and fervent anti-Communist openly met with Soviet dissidents in the darkest days of the Cold War, and Reagan’s proclamation of undying enmity for “the evil empire” won him the admiration of many who toiled in isolation and great danger behind the Iron Curtain. There’s just one problem with this Bush = Reagan equation, however: the Cold War is over. Communism is dead, albeit not completely buried, and the United States and Russia are at peace.
Or are they?
The idea that the people who met with Bush are some kind of “dissidents,” comparable to, say, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Andrei Sakharov, is laughable. Russia is a democratic country, with a free press and plenty of opposition parties: voters regularly go to the polls and elect a new Duma, equivalent to our Congress, as well as a president. Sure, the rule of law is not deeply rooted in Russian history, but they’re doing far better than might be expected given their relatively recent emergence from a state of complete subjugation. For Bush to meet with these self-styled martyrs to “democracy” in semi-secret, as if they were flirting with a trip to the gulag or worse is utter nonsense. Yet to read the Guardian‘s account of this meeting is to travel back in time to the ice age of the Cold War:
“Mr. Bush’s meeting with the Russian organizations may anger Kremlin hardliners who see such groups as tools used by the West to foment popular unrest and pro-Western ‘democratic change’ in Russia’s former sphere of influence.”
“Kremlin hardliners” who see Bush’s Russian fan club as “tools” of the West it’s all very retro, but then so is American policy toward Russia, which is rapidly recreating Cold War conditions. The Russian attendees at that meeting are tools, if by that it is meant willing (and well-compensated) agents of the U.S. government.
Manana Aslamazyan is the director of Internews Russia, what looks to be a wholly owned subsidiary of the U.S. government. It says so right there on Ms. Aslamazyan’s Internews Web site, which plainly pledges its allegiance at the bottom of every page:
“This site has been created with the assistance of USAID.”
Next to this notice is the USAID symbol: two grasped hands, the ambiguity of which is this a handshake, or is one arm being pulled in by the other? seems emblematic of the dicey nature of that agency’s mission.
Ms. Aslamazyan has been on the take for years. Her shtick is to complain that the Russian media is too consolidated, dumbed-down, and subservient to the demands of advertisers with a political agenda pretty much the Russian version of the Goody-Two-Shoes school of journalism here in the U.S., which loathes the idea of news-gathering as a commercial enterprise and instead insists on some unrealistic and obnoxiously high-minded concept of journalism as pedagogy: public television, albeit with some advertising. When these “pro-democracy” activists talk about “independent” media, they mean independent of the market as well as the government. In a piece for Russia Watch, Aslamazyan complains:
“There are no laws to ensure a level playing field for all Russian media. Russian TV companies (both in Moscow and the regions) face tough pressure from government officials. Administrative pressure on local buyers of advertising is enormous in small towns. Every bureaucrat has a favorite station or paper and hates all the others. Therefore, local officials use their power to exert economic pressure on the media through local businesses, which are likewise dependent on the whims of these officials.”
Sounds pretty much like the interaction of politics and media in the U.S. Yet she has been going around yelping about the “systemic crisis” of Russian media and warning that press freedom is in grave “danger” in post-Communist Russia. Doubtless she reiterated her complaints to the president and yet isn’t it strange that many American journalists would make the same complaints about the U.S. media? Does that make George W. Bush an American Stalin? Hardly. And yet on the same flimsy sort of evidence, American liberals (as well as neoconservatives) are quick to condemn Putin as an aspiring dictator.
Another delegate to this meeting of American stooges was Lyudmila Alekseeva, founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and winner of the U.S. government’s National Endowment for Democracy 2004 “Democracy Award” Washington’s official imprimatur. As to her meeting with the president, Ms. Alekseeva told Radio Free Europe that “the main topic of discussion was the continuation of Western financial support for Russian human rights and environmental work.” To be sure. What every prostitute dreams of is a sugar daddy with nearly unlimited funds and a Pygmalion complex. In Bush, Russia’s political street-walkers see a gold mine.
Ms. Alekseeva is quite shameless. She admits that Russia is, today, a free country. Censorship, she says, has been abolished:
“Of course, on both the federal and local levels officials have economic and administrative means of pressuring the media. But all the same, Russia’s mass media are fundamentally different from Soviet media, which were weighed down by a deadening monotony and intellectual sterility.
“It cannot be said that Russia has no political oppression, no persecution of individuals for their convictions. But such cases now are very rare I would say just a handful of isolated cases. Certainly, it is nothing like the Soviet-era system of political oppression. We have no political prisoners. In sum, although we still have far to go before we have established a law-based state, Russia unlike the Soviet Union is already no longer a totalitarian state. Moreover, I would say that all the civil-rights demands that Soviet-era activists put forward have been, to one degree or another, realized in Russia.”
The problem is that “social guarantees have collapsed”; health care, retirement benefits, and other features of the old Soviet system have been swept away. The new “dissidents” are protecting and advancing “socioeconomic rights,” in her phrase. She is naturally hypercritical of Russian policy in Chechnya: the Chechens are victims, the Russians are “aggressors,” and the problem of how to avoid future Beslans Chechen terrorist aggression targeting Russian civilians is glossed over. Another “victim” is the Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose arrest for massive theft and financial fraud evidently makes him a “political prisoner” in Alekseeva’s eyes.
Arseni Roginsky, the head of the International Memorial Society, also met with Bush. His group is supposedly investigating and memorializing the crimes of Stalin, but instead seems more focused on the alleged transgressions of Vladimir Putin. At a 2004 briefing put on by the Helsinki Commission, he sounded like a typical American liberal complaining about life in George W. Bush’s America:
“The main tendency in the life of our society over the last few years has been the efforts of the powers that be to destroy the isolated the islands [sic] of independence and democracy that still continue to exist in Russia. During the elections of last year, a completely governable, or pocket, parliament has been created. It was created the parliament was created by presidential forces, but it has become even more conservative than the presidential administration.”
Wow, so this means that there exists the Russian equivalent of Tom “the Hammer” DeLay?
“Elections have become, and this is from the lowest municipal levels to the highest levels, has [sic] become, as we call it, made-to-order elections. They’re conducted at the order of and completely so of the powers that be [sic] but also partially influenced by money. Sometimes the two kind of work across [sic] purposes.”
Elections influenced by money? Shocking!
As for freedom of speech in Russia, according to Mr. Roginsky:
“Officially it exists. In fact, though, the zone of freedom of speech no longer exists.”
What this turns out to mean is that alleged government control is “indirect”: in some unspecified way, it is due to “pressure.” It also means that not enough people read newspapers that meet with Roginsky’s approval:
“The circulation of independent newspapers and publications, from my point of view, is now 700,000, 800,000, but my colleague, Mr. Simonov, feels that I’m an optimist, that the actual figure is 500,000. And this is for a country of 150 million.”
“Independent” of whom or what? Roginsky does not say. Could it be those dastardly advertisers, who don’t buy advertising out of charity but to reach as many potential customers as possible?
“The court system is under great influence of the nationalistic, patriotic ideology that is flourishing in Russia at this time.”
From the tenor of this particular complaint, one imagines that, in America, Roginsky would be a member of MoveOn.org one of those Air America liberals you meet at blue-state cocktail parties who still refuse to refer to Bush as president, since, after all, he stole the last two presidential elections.
Roginsky retails the same anti-Putin party line put out by his comrades: free Khodorkovsky, free all Chechen “political prisoners,” and most of all, free us self-infatuated posturing Russian intellectuals from the indignity of having to earn an honest living send money!
The myth that Russia is sliding back into authoritarian or even totalitarian rule is not only ridiculously overstated: it is downright pernicious. This administration is seeking a pretext any pretext to restart the Cold War and launch a campaign to “liberate” the former Soviet Union from its oil and its sovereignty. The same neocons intent on smashing up the Middle East are bound and determined to shatter the inner core of the old Russian Federation. America’s fifth column in Putin’s Russia is an instrument of that policy, just as the Communist Party in the United States was a willing tool of the Kremlin and the recipient of clandestine subsidies.
We cannot implant “freedom” abroad by subsidizing and giving official recognition to certain kept “activists” whose program amounts to subversion against their own countries’ independence and interests. The idea is so counterintuitive and obviously unworkable that it cannot possibly be taken seriously on its own terms, and so must have some other purpose: this open showcasing of our international fifth column seems almost designed to provoke a negative reaction.
Imagine, if you will, Putin’s future visit to the United States. On his way to the White House to meet with President Bush, the Russian ruler stops off for a chat with the president of People for the American Way, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Al Franken, promising to help them, financially and politically, to throw off the chains of Bush’s evolving dictatorship.
Americans would have every right to feel outraged that is, if they didn’t just laugh it off as some kind of Bizarro World joke.
Now imagine the reaction of the average Russian to the news that Bush has met with these “dissidents” who put down their own country in public and are openly seeking to get on the American dole. We aren’t messing with some fourth-world Eurasian no-man’s-land here say, Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan but with the historical spirit of Russia: a country with a long history of fervent nationalism that upholds an almost mystic reverence for Russian sovereignty and a concomitant fear of foreign domination.
The extraordinary series of calculated rebuffs aimed at Russia that dominated the news of Bush’s recent trip must have that country’s political elite scratching their heads in wonder. Berating the Kremlin for what Roosevelt gave away at Yalta, going to Georgia (which boycotted the commemoration ceremonies in Moscow), and now this open encouragement of “dissidents” who will sell out their own country for a few pieces of silver and a pat on the head how many bitch-slaps is Putin going to take before he openly challenges the arrogant frat boy who torments him?
I shall not soon forget the look on the Russian leader’s face as he watched George W. Bush cavort and grin his way through the Moscow trip: it spoke of a supremely adult forbearance, of a man whose inherent dignity and focus allowed him to rise above everyday trivialities and concentrate on a single objective.
He looked, in short, like a man who was biding his time.