Ex-KGB boss Vladimir Putin has spent years quietly eroding the newly-established democratic framework of Russia. Now, it seems he is no longer being quiet about it.
Presently, Russia's governors are chosen by popular election. Under the new law that Putin just got rubberstamped by the feckless Federation Council, all governors will henceforth be appointed by Putin directly, and confirmed by the regional parliaments. Should a parliament refuse to confirm Putin's candidate, it could be dissolved and a "temporary" governor will be set up in its absence.
Equally alarming is a second law that has yet to be voted on, which would end the direct election of national legislatures.
With this stroke, Putin has for all practical purposes ended democracy in Russia. President Bush is tolerating this development for the moment because he has a full plate already; besides, it is difficult to dictate terms to a former superpower with a large nuclear arsenal. But I suspect that Bush is paying very close attention to the recent developments. Condoleeza Rice, incoming Secretary of State and a long-time advisor to the President, has been a specialist in Soviet affairs for all of her academic career, and much of her professional career as well. I have speculated before that Rice's appointment to SecState implies that our policy is going to reorient towards Russia. These latest moves by Putin have me totally convinced. We can no longer afford to assume that Russia will take care of itself.
One could ask, granted that a reemerging dictatorship is not a good thing; but why is it such a huge problem now? After all, Putin shows no inclination of returning to Communism, and is apparently an ally in the War on Terror. So long as we remain on civil terms, can't we just focus on the Middle East and let Russia alone?
Unfortunately, Russia is not as much of an ally as some think. Remember that the Iranian nuclear reactor in Busheir is being built by Russia. In fact, the project began even while Boris Yeltsin was still in power. It is claimed that the reactor is intended for power-generation; this statement is absurd, given that Iran is sitting on massive reserves of oil, and is not especially known for its eco-friendly attitudes. More likely is that the reactor is meant to curb the expansion of American influence in the Middle East.
Russia has not yet come to terms with its declining power. It still hopes to regain its former status as a superpower by building alliances with other nations, particularly in the Middle East. Also vital would be an alliance with China against the United States. Such an alliance is the single greatest danger facing the United States today, terrorism notwithstanding, bcause a Sino-Russian alliance could quite possibly expel the United States from Southeast Asia, leaving exposed the island of Taiwan (among other things). If you don't consider this important, consider that many of the components inside your computer are produced in Taiwan.
Putin's authoritarian plans are incredibly dangerous. If the Russian people cannot secure their own rights and freedoms, then it is imperative that the United States work to prevent an alliance between Russia and China. If we can keep those two seperate (or even, be still my beating heart, hostile to each other!), then it would be difficult for Putin to mount a serious challenge to our interests. Russia today is weaker than the Soviet Union ever was, though that could change as they build up their economy. Of course, Putin's actions are quickly driving away foreign investment.
On the other hand, Putin expended a huge amount of political capital in his ill-fated attempt to rule Ukraine by proxy, through his stooge Yankovitch. If Yuschenko ends up defeating Yankovitch in the new balloting, Putin may never recover. It would be nice, anyway.