The Dual Tragedy of Russia's 9/11

From day one, my trip to Russia was marked by tragedy. As I left my home in Los Angeles, I got word that two Russian planes had exploded simultaneously on their way to Black Sea resorts. Chechen terrorists were the likely suspects. Six days later, a car bomb destroyed the entrance to a Moscow subway station—on the same line I had taken the day before. The day I arrived in St. Petersburg, a band of terrorists took over a middle school in Beslan, a small southern town. And by the time I left the country, 360 children, parents and teachers were dead, many of them shot in the back as they ran from the school’s collapsing gymnasium.

I spent my last day in Russia staring at state-run television. Intermittent rain did not deter thousands from pouring onto Red Square in an inspiring display of national unity and heartbreak. The feeling was eerily similar to that of Sept. 11, 2001, when I joined thousands on Tercentenary Theatre to contemplate the inhuman scale of the attack perpetrated on my own country three years ago.

I had barely arrived in the United States when Russian President Vladimir V. Putin announced a sweeping series of reforms aimed at centralizing his grip on the country’s ruling apparatus. The Russian people, like Americans after 9/11, will also have to cope with a dual tragedy—a loss of life accompanied by a loss of liberty. By now, Americans should know all about the sort of measures Putin put on the table—the kind that won’t likely do much to help the war on terror, but will do a great job handing the government useful tools to crack down on ordinary citizens. In this case, think the PATRIOT Act on speed.

Putin’s most noted—and the most anti-democratic—proposal is to allow the president to appoint regional governors instead of letting citizens elect them. This would effectively end Russia’s federal experiment and decrease the checks on the central government built into the current constitution. And with the national legislature satisfied to remain a pliant tool of the Kremlin, that means more unchecked control for the president. But just to make sure it stays that way, Putin wants every member of the Duma, the lower house of parliament, to be elected using party lists—that is, in the ballot box voters choose a party instead of a particular candidate. This offers obvious advantages to the large, resource-laden pro-Putin parties with widespread name recognition and eliminates the possibility for charismatic outsiders to win a seat based on raw popular appeal. Making all Duma elections party-list elections will also help to keep liberal-minded politicians out of the Duma because a party must get at least 5 percent of the national vote to get any seats in parliament at all—a hurdle the liberal parties that do exist will probably not clear.

After Sept. 11, it was a common saying that America would never be the same. A free country rocked by terror had to find a new balance between liberty and security. A similarly dangerous logic is now at work in the Russian Federation, with a vital difference. It is not that Russia will never be the same. Indeed, the problem is that the former superpower is becoming yet another iteration on the same old Russian model. Russia’s young experiment with democracy looks more doomed than ever in the hands of an increasingly power-hungry ex-KGB officer, another Russian strong-man. America’s post-9/11 path has been ultimately less anti-democratic than Russia’s trajectory after Beslan because liberty has been a value of our nation state as long as it has existed. Russian history is marked by a nearly continuous adherence to despots, and traditions die hard.


In the meantime, there isn’t much President Bush can do to dissuade Putin from veering Russia off the path to liberal democracy. Bush’s post-9/11 record on civil liberties hardly gives him the credibility to criticize another nation’s sacrifices in the name of security. Even if the president did have the moral authority to rally the world’s democracies, it is not clear most Americans would care to see him do it. After Putin’s most blatant power-grab yet, the threat of de-democratization in Eastern Europe will likely continue to seem remote to an American public used to thinking of Russia as a defeated, ailing society—more of a joke than a potentially powerful state.

With leader of the free world unable to challenge Putin and keep morally consistent, it looks like the West may have to sit by and watch Russia’s already weak democratic institutions crumble even faster than they had before.

Stephen W. Stromberg ’05, a Russian studies concentrator in Adams House, is editorial chair of The Crimson.

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