Kasparov Challenges Obama

Garry Kasparov, writing in the Wall Street Journal:

Even as Barack Obama faces front-page issues like Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, he will still have to find the time and courage to deal with a certain nuclear-armed autocracy that controls much of the world’s oil and gas.

How should Mr. Obama deal with Russia’s official president, Dmitry Medvedev, and Russia’s real leader, Vladimir Putin? The choice is straightforward: Mr. Obama can treat them like fellow democratic leaders or like the would-be dictators that they are. His decision will tell the world a great deal about how seriously he takes his promises of change.

The Kremlin is very eager to be accepted as an equal. It apparently hopes that Mr. Obama will send the signal that democracy in Russia doesn’t matter, that the Kremlin’s crushing of the opposition and free speech is irrelevant, and that annexing pieces of neighboring Georgia is a local issue and not an international one.

Last week Mr. Medvedev was in France to meet with the leaders of Europe. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is also the current European Union president, tripped over his tongue to ingratiate himself and to present himself as a great peacemaker.

Mr. Sarkozy proudly announced that Russia had “mostly completed” its obligations to resolve the conflict with Georgia. But there is no way to “mostly” accept a dictatorship.

Russia’s ruling elite has close allies among the European nations that Mr. Obama is expected to woo. I am far less concerned by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s clownish remarks about Mr. Obama’s “suntan” than about the way he so eagerly rushes to defend the commercial and political interests of Mr. Putin’s clan.

Leaders like Messrs. Berlusconi and Sarkozy have no allegiance to the nation of Russia. Rather, they are defending Mr. Putin as a means to protect their personal and business relationships. Will Mr. Obama’s desire to be the toast of Europe come at the expense of democracy in Russia? Mr. Obama must listen very carefully when European voices defend the Putin regime. Nearly always there is the hiss of gas or the bubbling of oil in the background.

Last weekend Mr. Medvedev was in Washington to continue his new charm offensive. But Mr. Obama must remember that he was selected by over 66 million votes while Mr. Medvedev needed only one — that of his predecessor, Mr. Putin.

There is little doubt the most recent elections in Russia had even less value than those in Venezuela and Iran. Russia’s own “supreme leader” cannot be treated as a true democratic representative if the new U.S. administration wishes to maintain any credibility on matters of human rights and freedom abroad. For a glimpse into Russia’s “democracy,” just look at its idea of a bailout. While Washington is worried about Main Street, in Russia the government wants to rescue the oligarchs — at the expense of the Russian taxpayer.

In Mr. Medvedev’s Nov. 5 speech in Moscow, he assured the mafia running the country that everything is business-as-usual despite the global financial crisis. He also talked about extending the presidential and parliamentary terms of office, even though the next Russian parliamentary elections aren’t until 2011.

The speech sent two signals. First, that the Constitution, praised by Mr. Medvedev as the “cornerstone of law,” can be twisted. This helps pave the way for Mr. Putin’s return to his old Kremlin office, perhaps even before all the furniture has been moved out. Equally important, it says that Messrs. Medvedev and Putin aren’t going anywhere until they are forced to leave.

In a Nov. 7 meeting of senior officials, Mr. Medvedev instructed the interior minister to crush any demonstrators “exploiting the crisis” as extremists and criminals. If the EU has “mostly” ignored bloodshed in Georgia, would they accept it in Russia as well?

The collapsing Russian economy precipitated Mr. Medvedev’s new batch of threats. The vast majority of Russians, who haven’t shared the trough with Mr. Putin’s elites over the past decade, are realizing that they never will. When Mr. Medvedev took office he said that Russia would become a global financial center and that the ruble would become a reserve currency of choice. But with oil nearing $50 a barrel, the charade of a strong and stable Russia is over. The ruble is becoming a reserve currency — in Russia. With so many aspects of life in Russia deteriorating simultaneously, the regime has to squeeze harder to keep control.

Each day decreases the likelihood of a quiet transition of power later on. As John F. Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Such talk about the fall of the Putin regime is not just wishful thinking. Remember all the experts who failed to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Do not believe that the damage from a violent fall would be limited to within Russia’s borders. Gazprom and its ilk have many allies in the Western companies and administrations that currently serve as the Kremlin’s enablers. There is also the issue of Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal and large, though impoverished, military.

Mr. Medvedev’s posturing about the supposed threat of NATO expansion — and about deploying missiles near the Polish border in response to the U.S. missile shield — are part of his plan to get Western leaders to leave him alone so that he can continue his looting. Mr. Obama must quickly make clear that he will not tolerate this. He cannot repeat his predecessor’s mistake and look into Mr. Putin’s eyes instead of looking at his record.

Mr. Obama’s character is already being tested. He will fail unless he labels the Putin dictatorship correctly from the start. If he does, Mr. Obama might even be able to help bring hope and change to an entirely new constituency: 142 million Russians.

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