Putin Is Right: Democracy Is a Threat

When Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin expelled U.S. democracy projects in 2010, he correctly saw them as threatening his control over the Russian people.

He knew the threat was real after he saw the 2004 Orange Revolution in the Ukraine -- a place where he is today trying to push back democracy as quickly as he can.

What is most galling to me is that his efforts to crush democracy, jail journalists, close opposition newspapers and take over independent television stations has worked really well. Some 80 percent of Russians support him according to a Levada Center poll March 26 after his shadowy takeover of Crimea and initial moves to seize control of Eastern Ukraine.

I asked a Russian contact if Russians really believe Putin's claim that Russia annexed Crimea to support local Russian-speakers asking for help in fighting off Ukrainian fascists.

The Russian source said that even in the darkest days of the Soviet Union, when you could be shipped to a Siberian gulag for questioning the absolute power of the Communist system -- people knew their Pravda and Izvestia and Tass were riddled with lies and propaganda. They were able to read between the lines and sense there was another version of reality beyond the Iron Curtain.

But it took years for Russians to develop their sixth senses about being propagandized. Perhaps they are backing Putin in the polls because they are out of practice after 20 years of relative freedom?

Putin is also rousing the rabble at a ferocious pace by waving the flags of nationalism -- always a favorite of dictators and control freaks in every country.

So I have been looking back to the Ukrainian experience in its Orange Revolution to see what alerted Putin to intensify his drift to repression, which included expelling U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) programs to teach journalism, politics, polling and democratic systems of leadership and governing.

Putin also attacked independent reporting, ended state elections for governors, blocked independent candidates from holding rallies or having television time and jailed high profile critics such as Pussy Riot singers, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and opposition candidate Alexey Navalny. This was meant to warn the others and drive the bolt of fear through the average Russian man and woman.

"Don't you understand? This is a police state," a Western diplomat told me in Moscow as Putin's black limousine convoy sailed through eerily deserted streets to his inauguration in the Kremlin two years ago.

Dozens of opposition protestors had been arrested the previous evening at a rally. A few months later one journalist told the English-language Moscow Times that police deliberately broke his fingers.

The shredding of democracy increased in recent years as Putin realized he could run the country a lot easier without any opposition.

So when he saw the Orange Revolution take place on television in Kiev, Ukraine in 2004, he saw that it was led by Ukrainian journalists, judges and politicians, trained by USAID. And he didn't like it. And when those democracy advocates and civil society groups actually ousted the old guard, it was time for Putin to put his foot down inside Russia.

Actually, he didn't even need to attack the democracy movement in Russia. If he had waited he would have seen that the democracy movement in Ukraine had shallow cultural roots and proved unable to govern.

The new leaders stoked chauvinism, even honoring fascist and Nazi sympathizers who fought with Germany in World War II against the Soviet Union. That alienated Russian-speaking regions in Eastern Ukraine where militants today are taking over government offices.

The message today is more clear than it was during the heady days after the Orange Revolution.

You can win power and install democracy advocates in offices but you can't make them effective governors.

Like the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt and other countries, the liberal, young and U.S.-trained advocates for civil society and democracy proved unable to organize and hold on to power.

In Egypt, the army general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seized power and the military is once more in charge. In Ukraine, pro-Russian autocrat Viktor Yanukovych won power through elections after several years of ineffective rule by the democracy advocates.

So the old adage is once more proved true: that the best intentions can turn to dust and have unforeseen consequences.

U.S. democracy aid ended up destabilizing Ukraine and inspiring Vladimir Putin to be dead sure there won't be foreign-funded democracy movements toppling his plan for a resurgent Russia.

It's hard to know what friends of Russia and democracy can do these days. Ultimately, if the Russian people are content to be herded into a future of totalitarian control, we may have to accept that what they consider is good or simply acceptable for them will have to stand. I just hope that Putin does not grow drunk with his power and aim at other weaker targets in Europe such as Moldova and Estonia. Or perhaps he wants to be defender of all Slavs and aims at Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland. I'm sure he can find some dusty but useful maps from 1955 of Hungary and 1968 of Czechoslovakia.