Magazine article New Internationalist

Putin's Terror Card

Magazine article New Internationalist

Putin's Terror Card

Article excerpt

RUSSIA is slipping back into a pattern of governance that looks a lot like Soviet-style déjà vu to anyone brought up during the Cold War. A new strong man in the Kremlin, President Vladimir Putin, is tightening his grip upon society, cracking down on independent civic organizations, muzzling the press, cancelling elections and seeking to impose Russia's will upon neighbouring countries. Yet there is no sign of the communist ideology that was used to justify the former USSR's harsh social regimentation and authoritarian system. Putin insists, indeed, that he is trying to build Russian democracy, but argues for strengthening the state and greater powers for the security forces. The reason has a familiar ring for even the youngest readers - the fight against terrorism.

That threat is real. During the past five years, roughly the period Putin has been in power, Russia has experienced a string of horrific terrorist attacks against civilians, each more deadly than the last. In every case the Kremlin has responded with sweeping measures to claw back civic freedoms and human rights. Putin has justified such measures with dire warnings that Russia's very survival is at stake. Following last September's terrorist siege of a school in Beslan, southern Russia, which killed hundreds of children, Putin cancelled direct elections for governors in Russia's 89 regions, tightened restrictions on domestic movements by citizens, and declared a state of semi-emergency in the troubled north Caucasus zone.

'Russia has been too weak,' Putin said in a TV address following the Beslan tragedy. 'And the weak get beaten.'

Though independent social polling has been drastically curbed, the surveys that are available appear to show most Russians in agreement with Putin's strong-armed approach. The President's personal approval rating has seldom fallen below 70 per cent in the past five years. Other polls suggest that majorities favour press censorship, expanded police rights of search and seizure, and restoring the Soviet-era 'block committees' of neighbourhood vigilantes and police informer networks. But even officially backed opinion surveys show that over half of Russians oppose Putin's decision to end elections for local governors, and over 40 per cent do not believe there can be a 'forceful solution' to the decade-old conflict in separatist Chechnya, the key source of Russia's terrorist problem.

'There is no doubt that terrorism has been a major spur in the public's yearning for a strong hand to bring order,' says Sergei Kazyonnov, an expert with the independent Institute of National Security and Strategic Research in Moscow. 'People see the loss of freedom as a tax that has to be paid for security. And it's clear that, after the traumas that have occurred, Russians are very willing to pay that price.'

But terrorism has also been a handy excuse for Putin, a former KGB agent who came to office pledging to reverse Russia's decline on the world stage, restore social order, rebuild the armed forces and modernize the rusting Sovietera economy.

'The connection between terrorism and Putin's policies is a bit artificial,' says Sergei Mikheyev, an expert with the Centre for Political Technologies, a Moscow thinktank. 'The main goal is to end the post-Soviet deterioration of Russia, to strengthen the state in order to restore our lost economic, scientific and geopolitical positions. If you want to call that authoritarianism, OK, then these authoritarian trends would have appeared even without terrorism.'

In the autumn of 1999, when Putin was Prime Minister and heir apparent of the unpopular and enfeebled Boris Yeltsin, Russia was shaken by a series of nighttime apartment blasts that killed almost 300 people in their sleep, in Moscow and two other cities. The attacks were blamed on Chechen rebels - although the perpetrators have never been clearly identified - and, under the personal supervision of Putin, Russian troops invaded Chechnya for the second time in less than a decade. …

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