This morning we turn our attention to the Russia of Vladimir Putin. It is more in sorrow than in anger that I say that today’s Russia is a tremendous disappointment.
There was a time not so long ago when a new Russia, bright and smart and crackling with new-found freedom, seemed to be emerging from the dismal wreckage of the Soviet Union.
Boris Yeltsin, the son of a gulag prisoner and the grandson of a man whose land had been expropriated by the Communists, faced down the last defenders of the old order and emerged as Russia’s first-ever freely-elected President.
It was my great pleasure to be his first host in the Congress at a truly unforgettable meeting, because it seemed to all of us – whether we were young and naïve or seasoned and cynical – that after 1000 years of non-democratic rule, maybe there was a chance for a breakthrough.
Now Boris Yeltsin presided over a flawed democracy, but it was a democracy nonetheless. Back then, Russia had a genuine opposition, a lively free press and -- for the first time in that nation’s thousand-year history – a relatively independent judiciary.
When Boris Yeltsin was in power, reasonable people in both out countries could hope that at last, the United States and Russia were on the way to forging a genuine, lasting and beneficial friendship.
But Yeltsin inexplicably named as his political heir an ex-KGB colonel -- Vladimir Putin. And for Russian democracy, and for Russian-American relations as well, that move proved to be a disastrous choice.
Since Vladimir Putin assumed the Presidency, Russia has once again become a highly-centralized and authoritarian state. Increasingly, Putin’s lieutenants hold top political and government jobs while at the same time controlling gigantic economic enterprises. There are those who view the phony case against former Yukos chief executive Mikhael Khodorovsky, who was arrested just over four years ago, as directly related to this grab for power. Just last week the European Court of Human Rights found five violations in Russia’s proceedings against Mr. Khodorkovsky’s jailed business partner, Platon Lebedev. And yet the Russian authorities remain unwilling to free these men, or even to move the court proceedings to Moscow.
Who would even have ever imagined back in the days of the New Russia that within a few years, political prisoners would again be languishing in Siberia?
In Moscow’s ruling circles, the ideology of the moment is not Western democracy, but a version – I presume, the Russian version -- the Chinese model: the idea that it is possible to combine economic modernization with political repression.
In Russia today, the opposition has for all practical purposes ceased to exist. A poll conducted last week found that even the Kremlin-backed opposition party, Fair Russia – what a title -- is only likely to garner four percent of parliamentary seats. This would leave the communists as the only so-called opposition in the Duma.
In spite of all this, there are a handful of incredibly courageous Russian democrats, some of them chess players, who insist on trying to run against the Putin machine, hoping to make the point to the Russian people that there is -- or that there ought to be -- an alternative. These would-be opponents of Putin in the upcoming Parliamentary elections have been arrested, beaten, excluded from the ballot and denied access to the state-controlled media.
Is it any wonder that the Putin government has not as yet issued visas to the independent observers from the Council of Europe and the OSCE who are scheduled to monitor the December elections?
And what has happened to the free press in Russia?
The independent press in Russia has been all but eliminated. Violence against independent reporters is so prevalent that Russia now ranks as the third most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist. Only Iraq and Colombia are worse.
Anna Politkovskaya, a fearless reporter and unsparing critic who was ruthlessly gunned down outside her Moscow apartment just over a year ago, is one of thirteen Russian journalists who have either been murdered or died of suspicious causes in the Putin years. Not one of these cases has as yet been solved.
Vladimir Putin has been able to do what he has done not because he is more intelligent than anyone else or has a more attractive political program.
The secret of his success is simple -- it is based on the high price of oil, which has provided to Russia hundreds of billions of dollars of unexpected revenue.
With this enormous windfall, Mr. Putin has been able to buy off public opinion in Russia. The newfound oil wealth has also fueled an increasingly aggressive foreign policy towards Russia’s neighbors.
Putin has used oil and gas supplies to try to intimidate neighbors -- most notably by shutting off gas supplies to Ukraine and Moldova in the dead of winter. He has used economic leverage to intimidate the Republic of Georgia by introducing sanctions that limit imports of wine and produce as well as by blocking transport and postal links.
For reasons that are perhaps not clear, the Putin government has repeatedly shown an irresponsible attitude toward global threats to peace, especially with regard to Iran.
The Russians say that they are opposed to a nuclear Iran. Indeed, Putin recently said that the two countries most threatened by an Iranian bomb would be Israel and Russia.
Even so, Putin insists upon fishing in these very troubled waters. He refuses to join with the civilized world in placing meaningful sanctions on Iran, and he goes so far as to sell to Iran advanced anti-aircraft missiles.
Putin has also hindered United Nations efforts to preserve peace in the Balkans by resolving the final status of Kosova. His threats to veto any UN resolution that would grant long-deserved independence to Kosova make it unlikely that a unified international agreement will be found. If the United States and its European allies unilaterally recognize an independent Kosova – as I strongly support, and seems most likely at this stage – Putin has threatened to recognize Abkhazia, a move likely to destabilize an already fragile situation in the Caucuses.
Putin is in a position to behave as he does, both at home and abroad, for one reason and one reason only, and that is the price of oil. Until we in this country deal with our dependence on foreign oil, our ability to influence Russia -- and other countries similarly situated with respect to energy supplies -- will necessarily be extremely limited.
I very much hope that my gloomy assessment is wrong. I am the only member of Congress in the history of the Congress who owes his life to the Russian army. I was in the anti-Nazi underground in Budapest in mid-January 1945 when the Russian army came in to Pest, not to Buda, because it took an additional month for Buda to be occupied.
And I have a longstanding intellectual fascination with Russian civilization and culture. Few things excite me more than attending a performance of the Bolshoi or reading a book by Dostoevsky any of the other giants of Russian literature.
And I still hope, perhaps not very rationally, that the spirit of the good Russia will ultimately prevail. But the moment seems somber, and I eagerly hope that our two distinguished witnesses – Ambassador Talbott and Dr. Piontkovsky -- might give us a more hopeful analysis.