Remember Freedom?

by Michael Belinsky | 10/12/04 5:00am

America seems to have befriended the former Soviet Union since the fall of the Berlin Wall. With its fall, Americans applauded the lifting of the Iron Curtain and the normalization of relations with the Soviets. Today, while still maintaining some diplomatic differences, the United States provides aid to Russia to prevent further brain drain to rogue nations and to help secure and maintain its haphazardly stored nuclear material and barely dismantled nuclear warheads. The Bush Administration speaks of Russia as our friend and President Bush refers to President Putin as "friend Vladimir." Meanwhile, that friend has quietly shut down the last privately-owned Russian television station, locked up an oil mogul for making contributions to the opposition party, reinforced "loyalty to the top" as the government's paradigm and replaced disloyal governors at will. All this has been accomplished with the quiet and resolve of a KGB agent. Shockingly, Vladimir Putin received KGB training.

Now, it would be unfair to say that the media has been all but complacent as Putin stripped Russians of their individual rights and personal liberties. The American media has raised objections, called for action and reported atrocities every now and then. The European media has shed more light on Russia's human rights record because of its proposed and eventually imminent integration with the European Union. Khodorkovsky's imprisonment was criticized, Putin was dubbed a "Tsar" by various writers in American newspapers, and coupled with the Russian people's dismay at Putin's performance, the already-stale democratic cogs began to turn within the Russian bureaucracy. A Russian court even overturned a Putin-favored decision to freeze the oil production of one of Yukon's subsidiaries! But then came Beslan.

The Chechen rebels' occupation of a southeastern Russian school that led to the eventual death of 300 children and parents was a horrendous atrocity on the scale of America's Sept. 11. Just like Sept. 11 allowed the Bush Administration to curtail civil rights, justify pre-emptive warfare and label critics as "unpatriotic," so did the Beslan massacre untie Putin's hands in Chechnya and silence any and all opposition to his iron rule.

This "Sept. 11 effect" reverberated internationally. The British government postponed the publication of its Human Rights Report, since its content would undoubtedly reveal the true extent of Putin's post-Beslan policies. In America, George Bush spoke favorably of his "friend Vladimir" in the nationally televised debates. The Human Rights Watch's London director, Steve Crawshaw, warned the British government that "heinous criminal acts are not a reason to put other human rights abuses to one side." Alas, it is unlikely that either the Western powers or Putin will ever heed his words.

We can now draw lessons from our own Sept. 11 to predict the long-term Russian response to Beslan: Putin will suppress any and all civil rights, strengthen his grip on Chechnya with its oil fields and guerilla resistance, relegate all outcries and opposition to the realm of the "unpatriotic," introduce sweeping legislation that robs citizens of their futures and run his re-election campaign on the platform of safeguarding the future and winning the war against Chechnyan terrorism. Why, oh why, does this sound so familiar?

A few weeks ago, as my family was having dinner with a few of our Russian friends, a woman actually articulated to me her firm belief that Putin orchestrated the Beslan massacre to gain that unlimited power of which a KGB agent always dreams. I smiled -- she reminded me so much of Howard Dean and his slip-of-tongue belief that Bush orchestrated Sept. 11. But now, writing this article, the comparison gives me the chills. How did it happen that the world's foremost democracy is comparable to this former communist regime in terms of obstructed freedoms and dismissal of international treaties? I can only come to the conclusion that such is our punishment for electing power-hungry men to office. Whether in the land of the free or in the former USSR, officials that value security and total control over individual freedoms and liberties will always be able pursue their own agendas, regardless of what constraints the rule of law places on them. Such is the nature of democratic government, which places only one restriction on their rule -- the power to elect them rests on our shoulders.