Last week, I wrote that the terrorist events in Moscow meant that Russia was about to choose between two distinct paths for its democratic aspirations. Either Vladimir Putin would reincarnate his 2004 persona and use the attacks to further retard Russian democracy, or new President Dmitri Medvedev would leverage the blasts as a catalyst that liberates him from Putin’s yoke and parries his attempts at a new power-grab. At the time, I was hopeful for the second outcome, but betting on the first.
Unfortunately, this op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times slid me more towards the Putin-power-grab outlook. I had failed to appreciate that, well, there’s a different political culture in Russia that protects the “czar” and blames his underlings:
In other countries, leaders might pay a political price for not preventing a startling attack like the suicide bombings in the Moscow subway last Monday. Not here, at least not so far. If anything, terrorism and unrest in Russia’s predominantly Muslim regions have long served to strengthen Mr. Putin’s hand.
He plays on a piece of Russian folk wisdom that is roughly translated as “the good czar, bad advisers” — the belief that, throughout history, a Russian leader with the right intentions is often betrayed by underlings. That is why Mr. Putin, the prime minister and former president, is often shown in public scowling and lecturing other officials.
“When it comes to terrorism, Putin knows how — and this is a very important aspect of his political mastery — to protect himself from what might otherwise be considered his responsibility,” said Sergey Parkhomenko, a political commentator and radio talk show host in Moscow.
On Thursday night, he headed to Venezuela to see President Hugo Chavez for a visit that was intended to display the Kremlin’s muscular foreign policy and its warm relations with an antagonist of the United States. It was less than two days after a Chechen extremist had claimed responsibility for the subway attacks, and had promised there would be more.
It’s an important reminder that learning what’s in the political DNA of our partners and rivals is essential if the U.S. is to craft effective long-term partnerships and exert its influence wisely on the global stage.