Happy Birthday, Mr. Putin!

Saturday, October 7 was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s birthday, which went unfairly unnoticed in the West. It was, however, the reason for festivities and celebrations elsewhere.

In Northern Caucuses, leaders of the puppet regimes of Chechnya, Daghestan, Ingushetia as well as tens of thousands of youths in T-shirts with Putin’s portraits on were waving Russian flags in the capital Grozny. In many Russian cities and towns presidential admirers held banners celebrating Putin’s 54th birthday wishing the beloved president “long years, health, happiness, and success in improving our lives”!

In wishing Putin happy birthday they were joined by the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il who has sent “sincere and brotherly” birthday greeting to Putin amid mounting tensions over his announced nuclear test. In his message, Kim extended congratulations to Putin on his 54th birthday and wished him success in accomplishing Russia’s high goals of socio-economic development. He definitely remembers that his regime remains a Russian client and almost all military technology employed by the Pyongyang (including nuclear and missile technologies) was transferred to North Korea from Russia. Kim Jong Il, who threatened to “plunge the damned U.S. territory into a sea of flame,” is definitely appreciative of Mr. Putin’s support.

President Putin was the first of any Russian or Soviet leader who traveled to the Stalinist state – not even Stalin himself, Khrushchev or Brezhnev went to North Korea. Putin and Kim Jong-Il signed a Russia-North Korea Treaty of Friendship, reviving traditional ties between Moscow and Pyongyang. As a part of the treaty, missile component companies in Russia and Uzbekistan were reportedly collaborating to sell North Korea a special aluminum alloy for missile manufacture, laser gyroscopes used in missile guidance, and connectors and relays used in missile electronics.

Three miles away from the Kremlin birthday celebrations, one of the last surviving critics of President Putin and his bloody war in Chechnya, journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in the execution-style killing. Politkovskaya, whose books include Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy and A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya, was the subject of the official smear campaign and there were attempts on her life before. The killer finished the murder with a KGB signature “control” shot to the base of her skull. She was 48 and left two children. In an ironic twist the maverick Russian news agency “NR,” called her death a “birthday gift” to Putin on his 54th birthday.

President Putin, a son and grandson of Stalin’s admirers (his grandfather was one of Stalin’s cooks), whose professional life revolved around the infamous KGB where he was a career spy, has definitely made the restoration of Russia’s superpower status a priority, as he has so stated on numerous occasions. Under President Putin’s leadership, any hopes for freedom and prosperity in Russia are being betrayed as he has effectively wiped out all voices of dissent and is steadily moving towards authoritarian rule in all spheres. He raised toasts to Stalin, and in his Statement to the Federal Council he referred to the collapse of the USSR “as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

Putin is a “typical problem profiteer” – he thrives on problems whether real, imaginary or fabricated. The war in Chechnya, the bombing of apartments in Moscow and Southern Russia, and now the harassment of independent Georgia give him excuse to crack down on the property rights, freedom of speech, and unleash unprecedented campaign of xenophobia, intimidate his political opponents, and increase the power of the state as well as his own.

Putin has taken full advantage of the Western preoccupations with the war on terrorism and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan to distract world public opinion from the burning issue of freedom in Russia. This issue is central for Putin, threatened by criticism from Washington and Brussels about Russia’s backsliding on “human rights.”

Putin declared the West “colonialist” for its criticism of his autocracy. For Putin and his power structure based on the infamous KGB/FSB, it is more important to keep the monopoly on power rather than to be nice with the West. Moscow’s ruling elite was scared that Russians would follow the path of the “colored revolutions” in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine. Thus, an ongoing intimidation campaign in the Kremlin-controlled media against Georgians, Baltic nations and Ukrainians. Putin vehemently opposes aspirations of Georgians and Ukrainians for freedom and prosperity and fears a “color revolution” in Moscow.

Russian foreign policy is supportive of any dictator. Putin sold advanced missiles to Syria, provides sophisticated weapons and military aircraft to Sudan, Myanmar, Cuba and Venezuela, while continuing to fuel nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. Russian experts are servicing the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear reactor, the biggest in Iran. Russian policy in the Middle East is based on weapons supplies and has spurred terrorism and armed conflicts.

Economic success of Russia depends more on guaranteed and protected property rights, free, open and transparent markets rather than high oil prices which Putin & Co. are trying to keep high by heightening international tension. According to Bruce P. Jackson writing in the Washington Post, the FSB-led attack on Western businesses in Russia has already cost Western shareholders billions of their investment. These losses will undoubtedly continue until some element of the rule of law returns to Moscow. Putin got rid of Andrei Illarionov and other token free-marketeers in his government and at this point I am afraid for their personal safety. Another opponent of Putin’s autocracy, formerly the richest Russian industrialist, Mikhail Khodorkovsky is being abused and mutilated in his Siberian jail. Implications of his ordeal go beyond the abrogation of property and other human rights and the return of anti-Semitism to Kremlin. With confiscation of Yukos and reselling its assets through Rosneft, we are witnessing the largest expropriation of Jewish property since the Nazi regime in the 1930s. Stripped of its assets, Yukos declared self-liquidation last July. Return of the total government control over mass media and information is fundamentally at odds with the transparency that efficient markets require. Russia is moving away from economic freedom (which it never had in a true sense).

It is clear that President Bush’s efforts at personal diplomacy with Putin and attempts of other American well-wishers like the CATO institute have failed miserably and have been followed by further cynical curtailment of property and other human rights in Russia and the policy of open thuggery and intimidation in the post-Soviet space. Putin’s birthday is a sad reminder of imposition of his de facto autocracy in Moscow.

October 10, 2006