There's no doubt that Russia is becoming less democratic by the day. The only question is whether you think that Russia was far enough from dictatorship in the first place to make slipping back into it possible.
All the dictatorship talk I keep hearing about in the chatty Russian bathhouses I frequent when the wife is out of town is the result of Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent power grab.
Did I just say "power grab"? That was awfully judgmental of me. What I should have said was "Putin's recent political restructuring proposal that, when implemented (notice that I don't say 'if'), will pretty much neutralize his political opposition, present or future." That's way more polite than "power grab."
In the wake of last month's terrorist attack on a school in Beslan that left about 350 people dead, Putin proposed two major governmental changes. First, he wants to appoint the country's regional governors himself to create what he calls a single chain of command. Currently, the governors are selected via region-wide popularity contests called elections.
Secondly, ol' Rootin' Tootin' Putin wants to change Russian parliamentary elections so that Russians can no longer vote for individual candidates. Instead, voters would be forced to cast their ballots for political parties. That move will give party leaders final say over who serves in Russia's parliament. Pop quiz: If the law passes, who will control the parliamentary list of the country's biggest political party, United Russia? Pat yourself on the back if you guessed Vladimir Putin.
How does Putin explain his transparent power grab? With transparent lies and fear-mongering, of course. Putin says of his proposed changes, "Under current conditions, the system of executive power in the country should not just be adapted to operating in crisis situations but should be radically restructured in order to strengthen the unity of the country and prevent further crises."
Translation: The Russian War on Terror(TM) has changed everything. Give me complete control, or the terrorists will win. Hey, that sounds familiar!
Political leaders here and abroad have condemned Putin's moves. Sen. John McCain actually called it a "creeping coup." And last week, McCain, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Czech President Vaclav Havel, and 100 or so other international figures signed a letter condemning Putin's leadership and asking the leaders of Europe and NATO (i.e., us) to focus on encouraging Russia to become more democratic and less militaristic.
That brings me back to the resounding "maybe" at the top of the page.
As awful as Putin is now, it's not as though he's ruining some great democracy. Corruption and strong-arming marred several Russian elections in the 1990s. And since taking power in 2000, Putin has strong-armed most of Russia's big media into obeisance -- and has jailed political rivals at will.
The sad irony is that Russians largely support Putin right now. They seem to think that, in exchange for making their strongman even stronger, they're going to get the security that they long for. They're not. Putin's leadership in the area of anti-terrorism and national security has been incompetent. Putting more power in Putin's hands does nothing to address the widespread corruption that allows terrorists to go wherever they please, with whatever weapons they want, for just a few dollars (for example, one of the women who recently blew up a Russian airliner got on board the plane by bribing the ticket agent with just $34).
More power for Putin won't improve the stupid security forces that respond to Chechen hostage-taking with such clutziness that they often kill more of the hostages than the actual terrorists do.
And more centralized government won't dig Russia out the hole it's dug for itself in Chechnya. Putin's borscht-fisted attempt to crush the Chechen rebellion only fuels the rebellion and the sympathetic extremists who keep attacking Russian civilians.
The only thing that Putin appears to be good at is staying in power. He's a skilled enough politician to have turned the massive security and military failures that have taken place on his watch into a political stick with which to whack his opponents. No wonder Dubya likes him so much.