Two frightening events last week showed the unbridled contempt with which the neo-Soviet regime of proud KGB spy Vladimir Putin views the rule of law.
First, a Russian court in Siberia entered a $1.7 billion judgment against the Norwegian telecommunications firm Telenor, wiping out its stake in the major Russian telecom entity, Vimplecom. One Russian investment analyst said the ruling "makes the flesh creep." That's because "Western banks and companies are owed $453 billion by Russian corporations, an amount three times as much as they are owed by Chinese, Indian and Brazilian companies combined," and it does not appear that Putin's Kremlin is inclined to tender repayment now that Russia is mired in a horrific recession that has seen 75% of the stock market's equity vanish and the currency lose one-third of its value.
The proceedings in Siberia were a sham, reminiscent of the Soviet show trials and very similar to those that sent Kremlin-critical oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky to prison in Siberia just as he began to jostle with Putin for presidential power (Khodorkovsky, by they way, is currently being tried again on the same charges in an effort to lengthen his sentence, double jeopardy being a foreign concept in Russia; Putin is also moving aggressively to abolish jury trials). Jurisdiction was manufactured artificially in the Siberian forum, where a number of other Western firms (BP of the UK, Deutsche Bank of Germany and TeliSonera of Spain) have also seen their Russian investments evaporate. It's almost as if Putin had studied at the knee of Bernie Madoff.
But if the Telenor ruling made the flesh creep, the remarks of the Russian Supreme Court's Chief Justice Valery Zorkin made it do the hundred-yard dash. In a speech in St. Petersburg seeking to rationalize Putin's draconian rollback of civil liberties, Chief Justice Zorkin blamed democracy for Adolf Hitler's success in toppling the Weimar Republic and praised Franklin Roosevelt's policies (seeking to pack the Supreme Court, building concentration camps for the Japanese, seizing a third term, lying about his health, etc.), urging Russia's government to disregard criticism of "authoritarianism" just as FDR did. He openly acknowledged and defended "the elements of authoritarianism that are present in the administration of the country" and said that the only reason Russians chose to be ruled by a proud KGB spy was that democracy and capitalism had been tried and failed, so that "with one further step" towards them the state could have "fallen apart." Zorkin's audience accepted his remarks uncritically. The Chief Justice's remarks embody a triple falsehood that is routinely used by Putin's propaganda machine to attack Western values and justify the continuation of his crackdown on civil society (under this rubric, even Stalin's polices are seen as fully justified when depicted in the regime's history books).
First, it's simply ridiculous to suggest that Russia was ever democratic. Since the fall of the USSR Russia has never seen a transition similar to the one between George Bush and Barack Obama, nor has it even had a legitimate opposition party in the parliament, where the only serious friction is generated by the old-school Communists. Today, there is virtually no criticism of the Putin regime on national television and there is no major national newspaper that grills him the way the New York Times roasted George Bush. Russia has no idea what life would be like under democracy, because it has never tried.
Second, the notion that Putin was chosen because the people understood that Russia was on the verge of collapse in 2000 is abject historical nonsense. Putin was made president by Boris Yeltsin, who resigned before his term was completed, and then he ran as the incumbent with no serious opponent other than a Communist. It was Yeltsin's liberalism that Zorkin was condemning, yet he seems to be unfamiliar with his own country's recent history, nor does he recognize his own hypocrisy in attempting to justify Putin's rule using the same institution of democracy that he is assailing. Zorkin's remarks also echo and rationalize classic Russian xenophobia. Putin's regime continues the predictable Russian drumbeat about being encircled by demonic foreign enemies in order to stave off criticism of its failed policies from abroad, but the USSR was not toppled by American invasion. Rather, it was laid low by its own misguided polices, by its abrogation of capitalism and democracy. China has avoided a similar fate by judicious injections of free markets.
And finally, the idea that Russia had the right to expect a calm and painless transition from seven decades of Soviet oppression is unworthy of a man claiming to lead the nation's judiciary. Russians have not proved willing to make the sacrifices that all nations must make in order to win the benefits of liberty, nor do they seem to recognize that the anti-democratic system they previously had collapsed because of its own fundamental flaws. The United States suffered through the Civil War and the Great Depression without abandoning the liberal values that are the hallmark of the nation; Russia's experience in the 1990s was not remotely comparable to either of those watershed events. Zorkin seems shockingly unaware that unlike Putin FDR ousted a party that had previously held power in a real election, that immediately after FDR left power the constitution was rewritten to ban third terms, that the Republican Party challenged him throughout his administration and seized power when he left, and that the excesses of his administration are harshly criticized. What's worse, Zorkin seems oblivious of Russia's recent dark history, where millions of Russians were liquidated by the state's "FDR-like" policies so that, ultimately, the state itself was left emaciated and collapsed. FDR came up through the ranks of democratic politics; Putin is a career KGB agent. By the time FDR came to power America, unlike Russia, had a long and vibrant history of liberalism to insulate itself from his wanton way. Russia has no such protection.
When a nation's justice system becomes as perverted and hollow as these recent developments betray Russia's as being, that nation is in serious trouble. Combined with Russia's lack of opposition political parties and critical media, this dearth of checks and balances creates an emperor's-new-clothes regime incapable of accurately perceiving reality or adapting to meet changing circumstances. That weakness brought down the USSR, and if Russians are not careful their history will repeat itself.