Vladimir Putin, a dictator gripped by fear
By William Safire
December 8, 2004

The Russian President has good reason to worry about the rise of
people power in Kiev, writes GEORGE Bush senior's most memorable foreign policy blunder took place in 1991 in Kiev, then under communist rule. With the Soviet Union coming apart, the US president - badly advised by the stability-obsessed "realist" Brent Scowcroft - made a speech urging Ukrainians yearning for independence to beware of "suicidal nationalism". His speech, which he now insists meant only "not so fast", was widely taken as advice to remain loyal to Moscow.

I dubbed this the "Chicken Kiev speech". That so infuriated Bush, who mistakenly saw the phrase as imputing cowardice rather than charging colossal misjudgement, that he has not spoken to me since.

By contrast, the reaction of Russian President Vladimir Putin to the latest manifestation of the desire of the majority of the Ukrainian people for independence from Moscow is that of a dictator gripped by fear.

Putin's "Chicken Kiev" moment came when his plan to put in a Ukrainian puppet backfired. He put the Putin system of a phoney election, so successful in Russia, in place: central control of major media, lavish government spending on its candidate, harassment of the opposition and, most of all, overt embrace by the powers that be in Moscow.

But Putin's Ukrainian puppets were sucked into the undercurrent called people power. This unexpected democratic force manifests itself when dissenters are willing to defy authority in the streets and on the internet; when troops and police are unwilling to fire on demonstrating compatriots; and when worldwide disapproval makes the costs of a crackdown prohibitive.

People power failed in Tiananmen Square because workers were not involved and China's rulers called in troops from outlying areas. But in this generation, peaceful uprisings have succeeded in Poland, Czechoslovakia, South Korea and Indonesia - and Russia.

It could be that Putin sees in his Ukrainian setback the writing on the Berlin Wall.

Putin remembers all too well how people power worked in Moscow for Boris Yeltsin, overturning 70 years of communist rule; that is why he panicked this month.

The KGB alumnus hailed the fraudulent victory of his puppet prematurely; as protests rose, he summoned to Moscow the Ukrainian President, ostentatiously to give him marching orders; and with all else failing he stooped to standard anti-Americanism.

The US sought the "dictatorship of international affairs", Putin charged, deriding George Bush jnr's "beautiful pseudo-democratic phraseology". Putin's spin-niks called attention to the opposition candidate's American wife, and hinted at danger ahead in case the stolen election did not stay stolen: Putin's fallback position is to encourage the division of Ukraine, absorbing the pro-Russian east and rejecting the pro-European west - a break-up plan he also has in mind for the "near abroad" people of independent Georgia.

This is the reaction of a man who fears the contagion of people power. Up to now, conventional wisdom has been that - with some brave exceptions - most Russians long for an authority figure such as Putin, embrace his takeover of parliament and provincial government, and believe all they see and hear from obedient state-controlled media.

It could be, however, that Putin sees in his Ukrainian setback the writing on the Berlin Wall. He knows how many Ukrainians welcomed Hitler's army as a lesser evil than Stalin. He senses the danger to his rule of a Ukraine that turns westward to join the European Union. He fears that the outbreak of people power in his huge neighbour could abort his plan to change the Russian constitution to make himself president for life.

As an unreconstructed idealist (and, as the global mushrooming of democracy proves, idealists are the real realists), I believe people power will be unstoppable. But new democracies will not be clones of America, and newly liberated peoples will irritate the world's sole superpower.

The pockmarked fresh face in Ukraine has already promised to withdraw that nation's 1600 troops from Iraq. The repressed youth of Iran, when they overthrow the repressive theocracy, will still press for a nuclear bomb. The free federalists of Iraq will cut shadowy deals with post-Chirac France and post-Putin Russia. The young lion of a democratic Palestine will lie down most grudgingly with the lamb of Israel.

Thorns in tomorrow's rose garden? You bet. But it is America's calling, as well as in America's self-interest, to foster the flowering of freedom.

William Safire is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist with The New York Times.