Posted: May 10, 2005 10:57 am EST

Column: Is Putin building a totalitarian state in Russia? (~19 col. in.)
by Matt Milner, Ottumwa (Iowa) Courier
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    By Matt Milner
    CNHI News Service

    OTTUMWA, Iowa - Five years ago, I wouldnít have been particularly concerned at the sight of Soviet banners in a military parade in Red Square. Add on the fact that it was a celebration of the end of World War II and I would probably have been fascinated.
    Now it sends a chill down my spine.
    Russia, it seems, has already been down the path itís on now. It didnít end prettily.
    President Vladimir Putin seems intent on restoring a totalitarian state in Russia. To be perfectly blunt, that scares the hell out of me.
    Look at the past few years. Putin has assumed state control over the vast majority of the media. Coverage of the Russian presidential election was the kind that makes western journalists shudder. State media lavished Putin with praise and high profile pieces. His opponents received much less glowing reviews and much less time. At least one western watchdog put the figure at 80 percent Putin, 20 percent everyone else.
    The Russian government has also gone for some basic attacks on free enterprise. Itís a basic tactic for a burgeoning one-party state: eliminate or co-opt the people with the money to finance your opponents. Everything from oil to media has been a target.
    Then there were the spats in Ukraine and Georgia. Both saw the public unseat officials who were, at best, suspected of corruption. At worst, it seems that the Ukranian government attempted murder. The Kremlin backed the ousted regimes and wasnít particularly happy to see the West support the new governments.
    Putin also reorganized a number of the regional governments in Russia, creating in one a doppelganger of the Soviet jurisdiction.
    The most recent incident was Putinís description of the Soviet Unionís demise. He called it ďthe greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th Century.Ē
    Those arenít the words of someone committed to an open society.
    Thatís why the sight of goose-stepping soldiers flying the red banner is worrisome. Yes, the Soviet Union fought and won World War II. The Red Army and the Russian people suffered casualties out of all proportion to the western nations. They deserve to be recognized.
    But the re-emergence of the Soviet flag in Red Square, coming as it does after Putinís rehabilitation of the Soviet national anthem and the red star on military equipment, sends chills down my spine.
    This is reason for concern. Putin and President Bush have a cozy relationship. At least, their personal relationship is close. Politically, the two are drifting apart rapidly.
    History also shows that there is cause for concern. Putin probably doesnít want to re-establish the Soviet Union as such, but might not mind a similar model with himself in the lead.
    Totalitarian states emerge from the decay of a western-style democracy. Franco did it in Spain. Hitler in Germany. Mussolini in Italy.
    Russia has its own page here. Leninís return at Finland Station and the October revolution displaced the Kerensky government that succeeded the Tsar.
    Russiaís democratic institutions are fading. If history repeats itself, Russiaís government will follow suit. The relationship between a totalitarian Russia and the west will likely not be warm.
    But need it be as strained as in the Cold War? No. Russia and the west both seem to understand that reasonable people can disagree. While there are and will likely remain tensions, they need not be disruptive in the extreme.
    That development is predicated on the continued corrosion of the democratic institutions in Russia. Sudden change seems unlikely. But itís not impossible. Putin could very well choose to leave the presidency. His predecessor stunned everyone by doing so.
    If Putin leaves, it is critical that he do so before the democratic supports that remain in Russia atrophy beyond rehabilitation. Absent that, and it becomes very likely that Russiaís experiment with democracy will fail.
    Putin, more than any person since Gorbachev, seems to hold the future of Russia in his hand. It is easy to see how he could take the nation in any direction he chooses.
    That Russiaís future is in the hands of a single person, rather than the electorate, already speaks volumes.

    Matt Milner writes for the Ottumwa (Iowa) Courier.

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