Russia's Shadow Returns

A few years after my father died in his adopted Canada, the Russian tanks occupying his homeland, Czechoslovakia, finally pulled out. I remember walking the cobbled streets of Prague and Brno, wishing he had lived to see that day.

Now that I see the return of Russia's shadow over Eastern and Central Europe, I recall too clearly the days when, even in a fancy Prague café, one feared to speak too loudly or mention forbidden things such as politics, poetry, elections, freedom to travel and rock and roll.

When I pulled out a copy of the New York Times I had brought with me, my friends turned pale and urged me to hide the paper, which was forbidden under communist rule.

And even though elected Czechoslovakian Communist Party officials had allowed the Prague Spring to emerge in 1967, the following year Russia sent thousands of Soviet tanks and troops to crush the outpouring of freedom.

For the next 20 years, until the downfall of communism, a blanket of grey fear covered the picturesque spires of Prague's cathedrals.

The current confrontation with Russia over its armed seizure of Crimea is in many ways a repeat of the 1968 invasion. And we Americans are partly to blame for it.

Ten years ago, I went to Ukraine to report on the ways U.S. democracy assistance had helped create the Orange Revolution in 2004.

I met with journalists, legislators, pollsters, political activists and others who were trained by U.S. aid programs to question authority, monitor elections, create opposition political parties and set up human rights monitoring groups. Many of the people trained had been sent to the United States to see how our democracy functioned.

The root of the problem -- then and now -- is that democracy means free media, honest elections, separation of powers, independent judiciary and a free opposition able to disagree with the majority in power.

This flies in the face of the political culture of Russia and much of the former Soviet bloc as well as developing nations known as the Third World. In those lands, power is seized by the strong man ready to use force to crush any opponent. Leather-jacketed thugs are the main way the government deals with those seeking change or freedom. Journalists are threatened or disappeared.

The democracy that works for us in America -- ballot box, public debates, free press, judicial oversight -- is based on 800 years of work to make the lessons of the Magna Carta take root and flower. Two principles from that British document are: "To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice" and "We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs or other officials, only men that know the law of the realm and are minded to keep it well."

Vladimir Putin is showing us this is not the way Russia is to be governed. He is moving to re-create the fearsome image of the Russian Bear -- whether under a tsar or a communist dictator -- and he is behaving like a hooligan amidst the polite society of Europe and America.

In Russia, his opponents are in jail, in exile or in the grave. And as far as letting Western-funded civil society and media use American funds to promote liberty of thought and expression, fuggetaboutit.

We went to Ukraine and other post-Soviet states with the hope -- one might call it idealism or naivete -- that everyone wants the same kind of "in-your-face" democracy we have.

Putin immediately saw this as a challenge to his vision of a resurgent Russia -- one that was not admired or respected, but was feared and obeyed. He summarily ejected USAID democracy programs. He knew they only lead the public to demand the right to choose their leaders.

Now that Russia has spread its wings, seized Crimea and threatens to invade Estonia and other former Soviet republics to protect the Russian minorities, no one knows where this will end. Remember that Adolf Hitler's claim to protect the ethnic Germans in the Czech Sudetenland was only the prelude to occupying Poland, France, Italy, Belgium, Denmark, Hungary, Holland and a dozen other countries.

Ukraine might end up being Finlandized. For 45 years, Finland was frozen politically under threat of Soviet invasion and had to remain neutral and under the sway of the Soviet Union. Russia still occupies the Karelia Peninsula, which it seized from Finland during World War II.

One friend described Putin as a "hooligan." He's a bully who intends to frighten people into giving him what he wants. When he was a KGB officer in East Germany, I'm sure this was his method of operation. Who would have the guts to stand up to thugs of the KGB in Soviet-occupied East Germany?

But now NATO has spread its protection over Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and other former Soviet bloc "captive nations." If Putin tries to move into any of them, the NATO alliance will be bound by treaty to intervene militarily.

I hope Vladimir understands that and does not overreach.