Feb 27, 1933, a fire started in the German parliament building, the Reichstag. The next day, Adolf Hitler, a quasi-democratically-elected national leader, convinced the nation to declare martial law and give him dictatorial powers.
Sep 1, 2004, a group of Chechen rebels stormed a school in Beslan, Russia, leading to the deaths of 300 innocent children. Ten days later, Vladimir Putin, a quasi-democratically-elected national leader, announced plans that essentially make him the only political power in Russia. Within days, Russian politicians universally praised Putin, despite their loss of power through the unconstitutional changes.
Are these similarities relevant? How scared should we be about the future of Russia and the world?
Putin seems to be leading Russia unwaveringly back into dictatorship. Opposition candidates were disqualified from the last national election without justification. His party is the only party with significant power in the Duma, the national legislature. All major national media is state-controlled. Wealthy and powerful oligarchs are thrown into jail if they dare to disagree with Putin (those oligarchs are most assuredly guilty of the charges, but all oligarchs are equally complicit in the plundering of Russia in the 1990s, and only those who disagree with Putin are prosecuted). In many ways, Putin’s opinion is the only opinion that matters in Russia. And now, regional governors will be appointed by him instead of popularly elected, and that the national legislature would be decided by parties instead of directly elected.
Why do Russians accept these changes? There are really two reasons, one concerning recent history and one concerning long-term history.
- The Yeltsin years were horrible for most Russians; savings were decimated by inflation, unemployment was rampant, national prestige was lost along with the empire, and Yeltsin gave away the crown jewels of the nation to the oligarchs to win re-election. I was in Russia in both 1991 and 1997, and I saw many of the changes myself. There was sudden obscene wealth for many young people in Moscow, young people who walked past grandmothers begging and selling prized possessions on the streets in order to be able to eat. A Russian newspaper I read in 1997 claimed that 40,000 people had died in Russia the previous year of alcohol poisoning, a mixture of overdrinking and bad homemade vodka. Though there were nominally political freedoms, the people were starving for food and respect. There were even demonstrations in the streets recalling with nostalgia the days of Stalin, for at least then the people had food (a selective memory at best). As a result, Russians wanted stability. Putin offers stability in exchange for giving him complete power. The economy is much better now, so the people prefer food to freedom
- Russia has never had a tradition of stable, liberal, modern, Western government. From the Tsars to the Politburo, important men have decided everything for Russians for centuries. The only exceptions coincided with national crises: between the February and October Revolutions of 1917 during the disastrous first World War, and during the tumultuous Yeltsin years. While we in America and the West have seen the benefits of democracy and stable modern political systems, those experiments in Russia are inextricably tied to chaos.
Of course, there are significant differences between Hitler’s rise in 1933 and Putin’s rise now. Hitler led a party united by an ideology. Hitler had ambitions to conquer the world and the erase the Jewish race. In contrast, the only ideology uniting Putin’s allies is power; there is no Mein Kampf. Putin hasn’t shown any inclination to conquer the world; he’s having enough trouble keeping the Russian Federation together and maintaining Russia’s sphere of influence in Europe and Central Asia. Putin also has shown no genocidal tendencies other than the horribly-fought war in Chechnya, which is more about maintaining an empire than destroying a race.
Additionally, the actual changes Putin will push through are not as bad as Hitler’s Reichstag Fire Decree. Here is the text of the decree in full:
§ 1.The articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153 of the constitution of the German Empire are suspended until further notice. It is therefore permissible to restrict the rights to personal freedom [meaning habeas corpus], freedom of speech, including the freedom of the press, the freedom to organize and assemble, the privacy of letters, mail, telegraphs and telephones, order searches and confiscations and restrict property, even if this is not otherwise provided for by present law.
So, while Putin’s changes consolidate power in his hands, he does not eliminate civil liberties as Hitler did. Putin’s decree is closer but not as strong as the Enabling Act from March 23, 1933, which converted Hitler’s role of Chancellor from a figurehead post (a post he gained as part of a coalition government when the Nazis won 33% of the popular vote) to all-powerful dictator. The Enabling Act allowed Hitler to change the constitution at will, and it would not have passed had the Reichstag Fire Decree not authorized him to jail enough legislative opponents to get it passed by a 2/3 vote. This constitutional game is similar to what Putin is doing; Putin is claiming that his friendly legislature can make the electoral changes despite the need for a constitutional amendment for such changes. With such illegal changes in hand, Putin’s power in the Duma likely will be increased so that he will be able to change the constitution at will, when he bothers to go through the legal process at all.
Finally, while it is generally accepted, though never proven, that the Nazis started the Reichstag fire to frame the Communists, I do not believe that Putin had any part in planning or executing the Beslan attack.
While some analogies to 1933 are compelling, Putin’s gambit isn’t directly as destructive as Hitler’s was. Additionally, Putin hasn’t shown the megalomaniacal bent that Hitler had. So, what should America’s response be?
I’m glad that the Bush administration has backed away from the ridiculously simplistic idea that Bush had looked into Putin’s soul and found a man he could trust. In a speech on Wednesday, Bush said “as governments fight the enemies of democracy, they must uphold the principles of democracy,” and “I’m also concerned about the decisions that are being made in Russia that could undermine democracy in Russia, that great countries, great democracies have a balance of power between central governments and local governments.” Hearing these statements is encouraging, but it will be hard for Bush to push further. Putin rebuked Bush for interfering, claiming that he was joining the US in the War on Terror, and that his changes are similar to the “tough and controversial security steps (taken) after the Sept. 11, 2001.” Once again, Bush’s overly-expansive rhetoric since 9/11 has made our diplomatic position weaker.
I don’t think that Putin is taking Russia to a Hitler-style dictatorship, but his people will allow him to take their political power from them as long as he maintains a strong economy and appears to be strong in the “War on Terror.” However, Putin’s actions and history over the last four years show that he has little concern for democracy. Putin is famous for saying he was imposing a “Dictatorship of the Law.” The joke in Moscow is that they’ve seen the first part of the promise without the second. This condition is extremely dangerous for the world’s second-largest nuclear power.
We must do everything we can to stop this unconstitutional power-grab, and I encourage everyone to contact Senators and Representatives to put pressure on Bush to put pressure on Putin.