Beware of Doing Deals With Putin – Kasparov

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In his latest editorial for the Wall Street Journal, Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov argues that the West should not prop up Russia’s authoritarian regime.

“What’s happening in Russia is that we are witnessing the survival gambit of a corrupt regime,” he writes. “The question is whether the West will bail out the Russian dictatorship or let it fall.”

Beware of Doing Deals With Putin
The U.S. shouldn’t get too cozy with a regime on the skids.
March  5, 2009

Vladimir Putin’s regime is fighting for its political life. That’s the good news. But the bad news is that the Obama administration is sending out mixed messages that may help the Russian autocratic regime survive.

On Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet with her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Geneva, Switzerland. The agenda will include talks on arms control and NATO. But in the forefront of everyone’s mind should be the secret letter that President Barack Obama recently sent to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The New York Times broke the story this week, reporting that Mr. Obama’s letter proffered a deal for the U.S. to “back off deploying a new missile defense system in Eastern Europe” in exchange for Moscow’s help in stopping Iran from “developing long-range weapons.”

The thinking here is not sound. Russia’s overwrought protest against antimissile systems never sprung from any genuine strategic fear. It was always a ploy and a distraction from its real agenda.

Mr. Putin — who is now prime minister of Russia — relies heavily on oil revenues to maintain his grip on power. It is in his interests to increase tensions in the Middle East as a way of driving up global oil prices. There is no deal the U.S. can cut to stop Mr. Putin’s Russia from arming Mideast terrorists and helping Iran’s nuclear program.

Secret letters aside, there are other troubling signals coming out of the Obama administration. One such sign came last week in Japan, where Mrs. Clinton talked about the “three Ds” of U.S. national security. She listed defense, diplomacy and development. But she left off the vital fourth “D” — democracy. The omission was no doubt welcomed by Mr. Putin.

Another troubling sign came in Munich, Germany, last month, where Vice President Joe Biden talked about the need for “pushing the reset button” on America’s relationship with Russia. But pushing reset won’t pressure Mr. Putin into acting responsibly on the world stage. It will only obscure, for a time, Russia’s malignant and contagious virus of authoritarianism.

While all these deals and olive branches are being extended to the Kremlin, there is ample evidence suggesting that the Putin regime is teetering toward collapse. One sign: Russia is beefing up its federal security forces in order to violently repress public protests. Last month, for example, the regime created the “National Center of Crisis Management,” which will deploy uniformed troops against “disturbances.”

It probably won’t be enough to quell public anger. Protests are increasing in Russia because many voters didn’t care that their elections were rigged until inflation started squeezing them. Time has run out on the illusion of economic prosperity for the average Russian.

Meanwhile, the Russian National Welfare Fund — created to back up the state pension system — is being raided to prop up the monopolistic industries belonging to Mr. Putin’s closest allies. Billions are being handed out to the likes of oligarchs Oleg Deripaska, Sergey Chemezov and Roman Abramovich — money that is going to service debt, not to develop industry.

When even billionaires are feeling the pinch, this may not be enough to arrest the slide. In the past year, according to the magazine Finans, the number of Russian billionaires was cut in half to 49 from 101. Many of those who remain may be billionaires only on paper; it appears that many of them have debts that exceed assets. This may be why Mr. Putin attended the World Economic Forum in Davos recently to push debt forgiveness.

Consider also that the Kremlin just struck a deal with China to send Russian oil to China at rock-bottom prices (under $20/barrel) for 20 years in exchange for $25 billion in loans. Powerful countries don’t cut such deals unless they are desperate for cash. What’s happening in Russia is that we are witnessing the survival gambit of a corrupt regime. The question is whether the West will bail out the Russian dictatorship or let it fall.

Some may doubt the fragility of the Putin government. But there are plenty of examples in history of supposedly entrenched regimes falling quickly. In late 1989, many in the West were surprised to see the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. Others didn’t foresee the sweeping away of totalitarian regimes in Poland and Hungary.

Mr. Putin and his allies live in fear of a popular uprising because it would likely force them into bankruptcy, exile and even prison. They cannot be expected to operate Russia as a rational state actor. Indeed, they may relish a violent clash with a contrived enemy in hopes of building nationalistic support — the war with Georgia this past summer may just be a prelude.

The West must not be tempted by a desire to maintain comfortable relations with the current government in charge of Russia. After years of criminal mismanagement, the Russian economy is falling apart more rapidly than those of other industrialized nations. The popular outrage that will lead to regime change will stem from the public realization that the Russian economy is in worse shape than other leading nations.

In fact, it is no longer taboo in Russia to speak openly of the post-Putin era — even among regime loyalists. The foreign businessmen and politicians eager to play ball with Mr. Putin should bear in mind that in all likelihood Mr. Putin will not be around that much longer. Nor will the dubious deals that he and his friends are making in Russia’s name for their own profit go unexamined after they are gone.

Mr. Kasparov, leader of The Other Russia coalition, is a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal.