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December 13, 2011

Russian Winter

Roy Meachum

We’ve seen this before, recently. More noisily. The Arab Spring started in February with Tunisia and Egypt. My October 25 column commented on the “Islamic Autumn” that followed. Now comes the Russian winter.


When President Dmitry Medvedev announced on September 24 that his mentor and real party leader would resume Russia’s top office, little protest was noticed or heard; the press went along. The other Eastern satellite states created by the collapse of the Soviet Union have gone through this before, especially Poland. With some exceptions, notably Byelorussia, the countries have achieved some form of democracy, as reported. The December 4th voting lit the Mother Russia fuse, splattering egg over the faces of The New York Times, The Washington Post and the U.S. government.


Last week on an island adjacent to the Kremlin I know, the Russian people demonstrated they shouldn’t be counted out. In a highly divided nation, young voices shouted; they were protesting against the international feelings that they had not climbed much since the October Revolution’s serfs. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Medvedev took their people for granted, and so did many Russian citizens.


One of my personal correspondents reported that in his Moscow district there were 24 polling places: half in residential and business places and the remainder in police stations and other government controlled sites. The results in local papers and on media were what he expected. Where the Kremlin dominated, 65 to 95 percent voted for Mr. Putin’s United Russia. In those places set out in the community, the ruling party notched up 18 to 35 percent. And these were the official results.


Since Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan agreed to a cease-fire in the Cold War, both “superpowers” have made “nice” to one another, Washington more so than Moscow. Russia continued to be the “bad guy” on the international scene, spying and strong-arming. In my four visits to the former Soviet Union, no one questioned my presence; I witnessed no brutality, in any form.


Still, my favorite Russian “daughter,” one night in St. Petersburg muttered — not spoke aloud — on censorship coming to the emerging nation. Back in Maryland, I noted her fears realized. Meanwhile the Western media outlets played “nicer,” fearing their credentials would be jerked.


On any excuse, they watched “Non-Government Organizations” being sent home, supposedly because they were undermining a specific domestic special interest. For example, as a favor to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Jehovah Witnesses found it impossible to operate. Several organizations that came to the country to feed and care for people were condemned as foreign lackeys, accused of reflecting unfavorably on the Kremlin.


The December 4th elections were the first round for the general legislative assembly, balloting for the president which comes next spring; but Mr. Putin is assured of opposition. Mikhail Prokhorov made a statement Monday calling for voters to support him; he’s one of the Russian billionaires who early cornered segments of the national economy. Mr. Prokhorov, in addition, is known for buying the NBA’s New Jersey Nets. Coming out in public certainly assures that he cannot be quietly “disappeared,” as the world has seen before.


Meanwhile, back in Russia, the situation remains a tinder box. The predictions are normal: things will get worse before they can become better. With the signs of the not-quite-revolution, it can be expected Washington will react, as it did in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. To act otherwise will brand the administration and the Congress as empty sheets.


Neither Republicans nor Democrats want that label in a presidential election year.


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