Russia's Putin Faces Growing Chorus of Criticism in US

Alison Espach | Correspondent | Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Russia's Putin Faces Growing Chorus of Criticism in US

(CNSNews.com) - The "solid friendship" that President Bush cited last month in describing his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin is now stacked against growing criticism for Putin's alleged attempts to revert Russia to a "police state."

"Information is now being closed again in the Russian Federation of Mr. Putin," Paul Goble, a professor at the University of Tartu in Estonia, said recently during a discussion at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Goble and other scholars criticized Putin for exerting control over most of the national broadcasting and radio stations, for allegedly bullying nearby countries, including the cutting off of natural gas to Ukraine earlier this year, and for the recent crackdown on U.S. non-governmental organizations.

Russia went from the designation of "partly free" in 2004 to "not free" in 2005, according to a Freedom House report and Russia's freedom of the press is now ranked only slightly better (a total score of 68) than that of Iran (score of 80) and China (score of 82). The United States was given a score of 17 for press freedoms in the same report.

Goble said Russia's re-traced steps towards communism are powered by the desire for money. "One of the scary things is that in Stalin's time and Lenin's time you saw people fighting over political power and ideas, and now you see them fighting over money," he said. "That doesn't necessarily bode well for the people living under them."

According to Goble, Russia is on Iran's, not America's side, when it comes to the controversy involving Iran's nuclear program.

"The Russians have built the Iranian nuclear capacity. The Russians have provided the Iranian government with the most advanced anti-aircraft system available to them in order to prevent an American-Israeli strike against those people who, among other things, call for the elimination of the State of Israel from the map of the world," said Goble.

In May the United States placed an embargo on the sale of all weapons containing U.S. components to Hugo Chavez' Venezuela and urged Russia to reconsider its policies on weapons sales to that country. However, in July Russia sold 24 aircraft and 53 helicopters to Chavez as part of a larger arms deal totaling $3 billion.

Lee Edwards, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation said this type of Russian military sponsorship is what led to the Middle East crisis we face today.

"It is a fact that Soviet sponsorship of Yasser Arafat and PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) allowed Moscow to gain influence on the terrorist groups like Hizballah," Edwards said.

"If communist-coordinated terrorists had been squashed or never existed ... the world would not be plagued with the present day terrorists Hizballah, Hamas, al Qaeda and the other violent organizations that commit mass murder in the name of God," he added.

Goble suspects that Putin will violate the Russian Constitution and serve longer that the allotted two terms. Putin was previously criticized for changing the 1993 Constitution of the Russian Federation in order to do away with the election of governors so that he could personally appoint them.

"I guarantee you there will be large numbers of American experts that tell you this is perfectly approvable," said Goble. "But I promise you, Mr. Putin, or at least the people around him, are going to push very hard to violate the constitution. It will be tragic if it happens because it will be one more failure in the movement in freedom and the movement away from the totalitarian authoritarianism."

Clifford Gaddy, senior fellow from the Brookings Institution, said Russia's role as a world player is now owed partly to its connections with oil and gas producers like Venezuela and Iran.

"What Russia's done under Putin is very consistently use this windfall wealth to reduce any leverage that the outside world, especially maybe the U.S., has on Russia," Gaddy said.

Russia has huge foreign currency reserves, a large trade balance, a large budget surplus, and no debt whatsoever to the International Monetary Fund, Gaddy added. As a result, he said, Russia now feels much more independent than it did in the mid-1990s after its economy had crashed.

"There is resentment against the U.S., because of the feeling that the U.S. took advantage of Russia during this period," Gaddy said.

A possible Russian threat to U.S. interests could be a matter of a "temporary, almost adolescent rebellion" or a "defining new fundamental strategic trajectory of Russia," he added.

"It's both a question of intentions and capabilities," said Gaddy. "I am not really sure about the intentions, but I think the capabilities need to be questioned, because it's all contingent on this windfall on high oil and gas prices internationally."

Goble said the U.S. is not paying attention to the threat posed by Russia, "just because someone has learned that in polite society that even if you were a KGB officer and a member of the communist party, it doesn't do to say that." Putin served with the Russian secret service for 16 years.

"It is far more important to proclaim that you are now a democratic and a convinced free market capitalist," Goble continued, referring to Putin's motives.

"It's a huge mistake on our part to assume that those words alone constitute the end of the threat that these people represented to the past and the tragedy they continue to visit on the populations that are all too often under their control and now neglected because some people have decided that victory has already been achieved," Goble said.

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