Something unusual happened a few days ago to Vladmir Putin's party of power, known as "United Russia," which dominates Russia's national parliament and faces no credible opposition there.
It lost an election, lost it in a landslide.
The poll in question took place in the world's most northerly major city, Murmansk. The race was for mayor, and United Russia's candidate was blown off the electoral map by an upstart independent candidate named Sergei Subbotin. The margin of victory in the runoff election was nearly two to one.
The casual onlooker might not have thought Putin's Kremlin would get too worked up over the loss, however. After all, Subbotin stated unequivocally that he was not an opposition candidate. "I'm a supporter of Vladimir Putin," he proudly declared, loudly and often.
But the Kremlin reacted with thermonuclear political force.
The ink on Subbotin's victory certification was not even dry before a measure was moving in the Russian parliament to authorize regional governors, who are no longer popularly elected but rather appointed directly by the Kremlin thanks to Putin's "reforms," to fire mayors like Subbotin notwithstanding their elections. That's right, simply fire them. And then a couple of days ago, the Kremlin got even more draconian: Not content to wait for Subbotin to be fired, and in fact apparently not at all sure he ever would be, it fired Yuri Yevdokimov, the governor of the Murmansk region, equivalent to an American state.
Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but immediately after the results of Subbotin's election were made known, United Russia's local leaders in Murmansk began accusing the mayor-elect of rigging the election, specifically by allowing Yevdokimov to campaign for him, an act that United Russia claims violates Russian elections law.
Then suddenly, Yevdokimov was history.
He may have got off lucky, though, compared to Boris Nemstov.
The author of a series of scholarly papers exposing the shaky underpinnings of the Putin economy that have been aggressively censored by the Kremlin, the former deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin was on the campaign trail himself in his native city of Sochi days ago when he was attacked by having ammonia squirted in his face just hours after issuing yet another tough critique of the Kremlin, this time questioning whether the nation's economic meltdown was undermining the city's prospects to successfully host the 2014 winter Olympics. Nemstov had no doubt that the attack was instigated by the Kremlin, and quite possibly carried out by its frenzied Hiter-youth cult known as "Nashi."
The incident brought to mind the radiation assault on KGB defector and dissident Alexander Litvinenko and the dioxin attack on Ukrainian president Victor Yushchenko. It may have been a warning to Nemtsov to drop out of the race or face what those two got later down the road. Then again, if Nemtsov does win, it may be that the Kremlin will simply fire him.
Like Nemtsov, on account of the Olympics, Yevdokimov was a particularly ripe target for Kremlin paranoia because the governor of Murmansk plays a key role in the massive Shtokman gas fields project Russia is seeking to develop in its northerly regions, and panicky nationalist rhetoric had been accusing Yevdokimov of being an "American stooge" because he showed sensitivity to foreign concerns about pluralism in Russian politics.
Faced with an appalling economic downturn that has seen currency values fall by a third, reserves by one half and the stock market by three-quarters, and seeing the financial collapse embolden political rivals of every stripe, it would appear Putin's Kremlin is getting desperate. Like the regime of Josef Stalin, it is not apparently comfortable with mere allegiance, but it must have the right kind of allegiance. And it is fully prepared to lash out with physical violence at any moment in order to get what it wants, regardless of the consequences for Russia's image in the outside world.
It could not be more clear that a firm Western response is needed to avert a return to Soviet-style repression in Russia. Europeans have taken two firm steps in recent days, first signing an agreement on long-term cooperation with Ukraine and Georgia that may help to discourage Russian territorial ambitions against them, and then allocating 200 million euros to fund the Nabucco pipeline project designed to obviate Russia as an energy transshipment point from Central Asia. Now, it seems, the ball is in Barack Obama's court. Yet, the world has heard nothing from Obama about the assault on human rights and democratic values in Putin's Russia. True, Secretary of State Clinton has made a pair of impressive gestures in the right direction, but it is time for the president himself to step forward or risk seriously undermining his purported commitment to liberal values.
And where are the Republicans? They have an ideal opportunity to seize a leadership position on Russia, to provide the kind of defense of American values offered by Ronald Reagan. If they let it pass by, such a chance may not come their way again.