I Know Worrying About Russia is an 80s Thing, But Indulge Me

The Washington Post is saying it better than I can:

Washington Post, 10-27-03:

“…Khodorkovsky had the additional misfortune of being the last surviving oligarch. For those who have not kept up their Russian, ‘oligarch’ is a term of art for ‘rich Jews’ who made their money in the massive privatization of Soviet assets in the early 1990s. It is still not a good thing to be a successful Jew in historically anti-Semitic Russia.

Since Putin was elected president in 2000, every major figure exiled or arrested for financial crimes has been Jewish. In dollar terms, we are witnessing the largest illegal expropriation of Jewish property in Europe since the Nazi seizures during the 1930s.

Unfortunately, the implications of Khodorkovsky’s arrest go beyond the suppression of democratic voices and the return of official anti-Semitism. This arrest must be seen in the context of increasingly aggressive, military and extrajudicial actions in Ukraine, Moldova, the South Caucasus and Chechnya. In the past month, Putin has demanded that Ukraine sign a concessionary economic treaty; Russian intelligence services have been detected behind election irregularities in Azerbaijan and Georgia and in influence-peddling in Moldova and Abkhazia; and Russian gunboats have confronted the Ukrainian Coast Guard in an illegal attempt to seize a valuable commercial waterway.

For the balance of his first term, Putin has skillfully taken advantage of America’s necessary preoccupations with the war on terrorism and the liberation of Iraq. Now Moscow and the capitals of Eastern Europe are watching carefully to see how Washington responds to this latest crackdown. If the United States fails to take a hard line in response to such a high-visibility arrest, chauvinists in the Russian Ministry of Defense and the FSB will correctly conclude that there will be no meaningful response to the reestablishment of a neo-imperial sphere of influence in the new democracies to Russia’s south and west. In addition to the expected Cold War thuggery and opportunistic financial seizures, we should expect that the new powers in Russia will rig the crucial elections in Ukraine and Georgia next year and continue to prop up the brutal dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus.

Finally, the incarceration of one man in Moscow’s notorious Matrosskaya Tishina Prison poses painful questions for U.S. policy. It is now impossible to argue that President Bush’s good-faith efforts at personal diplomacy with Putin have produced democratic outcomes. Indeed, each of Putin’s visits to the Crawford ranch and Camp David has been followed by the cynical curtailment of democratic freedom inside Russia. While it remains unclear what positive qualities Bush detected in Putin’s soul during their famous meeting in Slovenia, it is abundantly clear that this is the ‘soul’ of a would-be Peter the Great.”

Washington Post, 10-27-03:

“Mr. Khodorkovsky stands out in Russia because he has made his company and its books more transparent than had any of his rivals. Though the origins of his empire are shady, he is, in some ways, Russia’s first real capitalist — and like a real capitalist, he hasn’t hesitated to participate openly in the democratic system by donating money to political parties, including those who oppose Mr. Putin. Putting him under arrest sends a clear signal to other Russians that no one is safe from arbitrary prosecution, or from the political whims of the Kremlin.

It’s also a signal that the Russian government cares far more about destroying its rivals than it does about genuinely improving the Russian economy. In recent months, there were signs that capital flight from Russia had stabilized, as Russian businessmen slowly began to feel more confident in the country’s legal system. Following Mr. Khodorkovsky’s arrest, the stock market crashed and the Russian ruble plunged, as rumors of new capital flight abounded. Large investors, including Western oil companies, may be confident they have enough Kremlin connections to stay in the country, but smaller investors are now more likely to stay away.

The Bush administration’s reaction to this arrest may determine whether it sticks. Just a few weeks ago, President Bush endorsed ‘President Putin’s vision for Russia: a country … in which democracy and freedom and rule of law thrive.’ It’s hard to see how President Putin’s ‘vision’ can include the rule of law if it also includes arbitrary prosecution. Certainly there are some within the administration who believe that a Russian strategic decision to start rolling back democracy and the rule of law will undermine the Russian-American relationship. But the president himself must now recognize that that is what now may be happening. Mr. Bush may be unable to persuade his friend Vladimir to behave differently, but it is vital that he try. The preservation of democracy in Russia is more than an ideal; it is a crucial U.S. interest.”

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