Who knew that – weeks after the world gathered in Sochi – we would be watching in dismay and confusion the worrisome developments in Crimea and the rest of the Ukraine. Like images of the bombed-out remains of the Olympic stadium in Sarajevo, current events in Crimea are a reminder how fragile are peace and democracy.
Crimea has now been formally annexed to Russia. Canadians, who have lived through their own painful and drawn-out separatist referendum might have raised eyebrows over the sheer speed of the Crimean referendum to separate from the Ukraine and join Russia.
Viktor Yanukovych – widely viewed as a Russian puppet – finally fled to Moscow in the face of escalating public protest, and within days the map of Russia was being redrawn: the Crimean separation referendum was rushed through, Russian troops were taking Ukrainian military facilities by force, and the annexation of Crimea to Russia was formalized with a vote in Moscow’s Duma and the signature of Vladimir Putin.
Putin has been able to push the annexation of Crimea through at lightning speed based on several factors.
First – notwithstanding the flagrant betrayal of treaty obligations with a neighboring nation state, and notwithstanding the longer-term consequences that his actions will bring upon the people and economy of Russia – Putin has successfully positioned himself to the Russian public as an experienced hand providing strong, stable leadership of the national economy.
Let’s take a closer look at that assertion. Over the last decade, Russia has become the world’s largest exporter of petroleum, with oil and gas exports accounting for almost 70% of Russia’s export earnings, and covering half of the federal budget. As an authoritarian leader with a disdain for regulatory barriers, Putin has exploited the global boom in demand for energy as the basis for his credentials as a sound economic manager.
Secondly, Putin pulls hard on the levers of propaganda. Consider the bizarre photos of the Russian leader – bare-chested on horseback… or looking masculine and triumphant in what turned out to be a staged tiger shoot. Those photos may be the butt of humour for the Jon Stewart crowd, but we should remember that group is not the majority even in western democracies like Canada and the US, much less Russia.
It’s a bit spooky in retrospect to recall that Garry Kasparov ominously observed: “Sochi is to Putin what what Berlin in 1936 was to Hitler”. That is, the Olympic display in Sochi was an extension of the cult of personality surrounding an authoritarian leader: a kind of “he who shall not be challenged” message to his own bureaucrats as well as to the world.
It’s not surprising then, that his message strategy around the annexation of Crimea — a message that was all about “protecting” the ethnic Russian population there – has a kind of Orwellian tone to it. It’s even more worrisome considering the Russian populations in other countries that surround Russia’s present boundaries.
Thirdly, Putin has been, from the start, ruthless and methodical in “gaming” the legislative and judicial limits to his control.
When constitutionally mandated term limits dictated that Putin was ineligible to run for a third consecutive term as President in 2008, he found a convenient work-around; Dimitry Medvedev won the 2008 presidential election… and obligingly appointed Putin as Prime Minister.
Just in time for the following election, the law around terms was changed, and Putin announced that he would seek a third, non-consecutive term as President in the 2012 presidential election. And so Putin is President once again.
How does he keep such an iron grip on his people and on power? Well, Putin talks a good story about a “law and order” agenda, but critics point out that many of his innovations with respect to surveillance of civilians, judicial appointments, and weakening of institutions all serve, mainly, to concentrate power in his own office. The same critics note that an inner circle of politicians and bureaucrats who exhibit great loyalty to Putin, operate with seeming immunity from the laws that are applied ruthlessly to anyone who dares to oppose him. This habit of gaming any limits to power invites comparisons with other methodical bullies who have, through history, made a mess of countries… and sometimes a continent or two.
Newly minted Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland (Toronto Centre) speaks fluent Ukrainian and Russian, and was one of the first representatives to speak with the new government in Ukraine. She tells a worrisome story about the fragility of peace in what remains of Ukraine: as Russian troops now gather on their new border of the annexed Crimea.
What do we do when leaders are bullies? How are those who are governed exercise their own free democratic rights, and how does the world outside their borders respond?
Given what we know about this authoritarian – his progressive concentration of power in his office, his skill with propaganda, his methodical dismantling of legislative and judicial boundaries to his power, and his ruthless treatment of opponents – Canadians might need to brace themselves for sterner sanctions. But the alternative – to allow a bullying leader to run amok with power – will never be the honorable course of action.