The Poison Puzzle

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

December 15, 2004

RIGA, Latvia — In these long winter nights, a headless horseman is roaming Russia's "near abroad," threatening independent countries and raising fears of a renewed cold war.

This specter is Vladimir Putin. Let's hope he finds his head soon.

In traveling around Eastern Europe lately, I kept hearing from people who told me what a menace Mr. Putin was becoming, and they're right. There are plenty of examples of Mr. Putin's bullying neighboring countries, from Georgia and Estonia to this lovely little Baltic nation, Latvia, but the most egregious example was Mr. Putin's recent plotting to install a pro-Russian stooge in Ukraine.

If the pro-reform candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, does not die in a "car accident" before the new Ukrainian election on Dec. 26 (vehicle accidents are a preferred method for disposing of Ukrainian democrats), we may find out who poisoned him with dioxin.

On the night before he showed his first symptoms, Mr. Yushchenko dined with the head of the S.B.U., Ukraine's secret service. Hmm. The director himself has seemed to be a reformer, so was the large nonreformist wing of the S.B.U. up to its old tricks? Maybe. And did Russian agents, who have close ties with that nonreformist wing of the S.B.U., offer their expertise in toxins?

There's no evidence that Russia was involved in the poisoning, or even that he was poisoned at that dinner. But Russia managed to insert itself into every other aspect of the campaign, so it's a possibility that Ukrainians are murmuring about.

It's clear that Russia doesn't blanch at murder. Two Russian secret agents assassinated a former president of Chechnya (whom Moscow considered a terrorist) in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar in February by blowing up his car as he left a mosque. "The Russian leadership issued an order to assassinate the former Chechen leader," the Qatari judge said after examining all the evidence and convicting the two men.

The bottom line is that the West has been suckered by Mr. Putin. He is not a sober version of Boris Yeltsin. Rather, he's a Russified Pinochet or Franco. And he is not guiding Russia toward free-market democracy, but into fascism.

In effect, Mr. Putin has steered Russia from a dictatorship of the left to a dictatorship of the right (Chinese leaders have done much the same thing). Mussolini, Franco, Pinochet, Park Chung Hee and Putin all emerged in societies suffering from economic and political chaos. All consolidated power in part because they established order and made the trains - or planes - run on time.

That's why Mr. Putin still has 70 percent approval ratings in Russia: he has done well economically, presiding over growth rates of 5 to 10 percent. Polls by the Pew Research Center suggest that Russia is fertile soil for such a Putinocracy: Russians say, by a margin of 70 to 21, that a strong leader can solve their problems better than a democratic form of government.

Still, a fascist Russia is a much better thing than a Communist Russia. Communism was a failed economic system, while Franco's Spain, General Pinochet's Chile and the others generated solid economic growth, a middle class and international contacts - ultimately laying the groundwork for democracy. Eventually we'll see pro-democracy demonstrations in Moscow like those in Kiev.

We need to engage Russia and encourage economic development to nurture that political evolution - and reduce the risk that Russia, embittered and humiliated, will spiral into the kind of conspiratorial xenophobia found in parts of the Arab world. And, frankly, we need to engage Russia for our own purposes - such as fighting nuclear proliferation. But we also must stay on the right side of history.

So we need to speak out much more forcefully against brutality in Chechnya, the continued Russian military interference in Georgia and Moldova, the suppression of the news media in Russia, and lately the pillaging of companies that don't bow deeply enough to Mr. Putin.

It was good to see that Colin Powell didn't let Mr. Putin push us around over Ukraine. We need to stop letting him bully us on other issues - and help him find his head again. If the Baltic citizens and those brave Ukrainians can stand up to Mr. Putin, so can we.

In my last column, I misspelled the name of the Latvian president. She's Vaira Vike-Freiberga.