From People Power to Putin Power

As I attended a small but dignified memorial ceremony in Paris last week in honor of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya – a woman “brave beyond limits,” in the words of her French editor – I was reminded of another posthumous tribute I participated in nearly 17 years ago in Moscow. Unlike Politkovskaya, the great scientist and human right activist Andrei Sakharov had not been murdered, and the tribute given to him then looked like the celebration of a new era. A new page was being turned, one that was full of uncertainty but also of hope that Russia was on its way to becoming a “normal country.”

It is this page that has been probably fully closed with the assassination of Politkovskaya. What the small crowd of intellectuals gathered in Paris was mourning was their hope for a different Russia. We were burying the collective dream of intellectuals and democrats for a Russia where freedom and the rule of law would, after a long and cold Soviet winter, take root and bloom. The portraits of Politkovskaya, like a multitude of mirrors, were calling us back to a much darker reality. The dream was over. It had, most likely, never been realizable.

What we are witnessing today is a totally different story. Russia is literally buying its way back into the international system as a preeminent actor, one that is regaining power and clout by replacing nuclear weapons with oil and gas and substituting greed for fear. The balance of terror of the Soviet era has given way to unilateral energy dependency in favor of Russia. With their enormous cash flow, Russian billionaires are buying sumptuous properties all over the world, and Russia is buying prominent Germans like the former Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, if not the support of Germany as such.

Whatever the enormous differences that may separate them, post-communist Russia and fundamentalist Iran have much in common. Energy wealth gives them a sense of unique opportunity, the conviction that time is playing in their favor, and that they can now redress the humiliations they have suffered from the outside world. It is as if they were combining the Arab/Islamic world’s culture of humiliation and Asia’s culture of hope. Both are marked by a defiant nationalism, and both feel irresistible, all the more so because they sense that the United States is in decline as a result of the quagmire in Iraq, if not in Afghanistan as well.