What exactly did President Bush see when he looked into President Putin’s eyes? I recall he got “a sense of his soul.”
After my post last week about Kommersant’s reaction to the death of Russian journalist Ivan Safronov, a couple of my Russian friends e-mailed me to tell me they were concerned for my safety.
I think I’m plenty safe writing critically about Putin from my Washington, D.C. office. But now I’m beginning to worry about my friends who wrote me the e-mails.
This from the Financial Times:
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has decreed the creation of a new super-agency to regulate the country’s media and the internet, sparking fears among journalists that a clampdown on the media could extend to the web, which until now has remained free.
The official Kremlin line is that this is just bureaucratic reshuffling. Some speculation in the Western media has focused on the timing of the move, just a year before elections. The shockwaves that an Internet-patrolling agency will create will long outlast a single electoral season.
In fact, the implications of this move could be even greater than the chilling effect it is sure to have on bloggers and online news outlets. Setting up to regulate the Internet opens up the possibility of regulating e-mail, the cheapest, easiest, and presumably most anonymous form of communication available to Russians today.
During my first trip to Russia in 1998, my friends and I had conversations with Boris and Ivan, FSB agents we imagined were listening to our every move at the now-closed, legendary Rossiya hotel. My friends who had made trips just a few years earlier recalled finding bugs in the room and cracking jokes for the benefit of the real-life agents who were listening in.
In 1998, living with spies felt like a quaint aspect of daily life in Russia that was comfortably in the rear view mirror. There’s nothing quaint about these current developments. By spying on e-mails, the FSB can “listen in” on any Russian without the hassle of installing bugs or the potential humiliation of their discovery.
If only that could have be foreseen by looking into Putin’s eyes. Until recently, the United States embraced a policy of see no evil, hear no evil in Russia. On the few recent occasions when administration officials have chided Russia for the erosion of press freedom and democracy, Putin has simply deflected the criticism by returning fire and telling America not to throw stones from glass houses.
It didn’t have to be this way. The Bush administration has left the U.S.-Russia relationship to rot, replacing back-and-forth diplomacy with warm fuzzy compliments. For his first five years in office, Bush turned two blind eyes to crackdowns like this one in order to increase the likelihood of some future diplomatic agreement on Iran, Iraq, North Korea, or the next American foreign policy failure du jour.
Now, that has been exposed as pure fantasy. And you won’t even be able to blog about it in Moscow.
— Scott Paul