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Joe Gandelman: The retro world of Vladimir Putin

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So much for the hope that a new, democratic, non-confrontational Russia would emerge in the 21st century — hopes that began on Nov. 9, 1989 when Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev took up President Ronald Reagan’s challenge and tore down that 30-year-old Berlin wall.

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Increasingly, some pundits, analysts and policy makers face a tough choice. Should they say Russian President Vladimir Putin, cloaked in a fig leaf of “plausible deniability” during transparently aggressive military actions and as vigilantes abduct and brutalize gays, is starting to remind them of the Nazis or Josef Stalin?

If Gorbachev and the hapless Boris Yeltsin seemingly starred in “The Fall of the Soviet Union,” Putin is starring in a revamped vampire movie: “The KGB Has Risen from the Grave.” The world watches as Putin seems poised to come up with a pretext to swallow Ukraine.

Russia increasingly seems like it’s back to the 1940s —or earlier. A recent report that Jews in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk were given leaflets allegedly from pro-Russian militants telling them they had have to “register” with Ukrainians trying to make the city part of Russia, give a list of their property, and pay a fee or it’d be confiscated, sparked an international media furor. Some argued the leaflets were phony, and tried to make pro-Russians look bad.

Real or not, the bottom line is that leaflets sounding like something out of Nazi Germany mean it’s stressful being Jewish in parts of the Ukraine. And this is NOT an isolated case.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued a statement noting “troubling manifestations against ethnic and religious minority communities. In Donetsk, leaflets have been distributed calling for Jews to register their religion and list property, and Molotov cocktails have been thrown at a synagogue in Mykolaiv. In Sloviansk, armed separatists have reportedly invaded Romani houses, beating and robbing inhabitants. In largely Russian-speaking Donetsk oblast, even Ukrainian-speakers, such as Ukrainian-language media, have reportedly experienced intimidation...[and] in the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula, Crimean Tatars continue to be threatened with deportation and assaulted for speaking their own language.”

Cardin said the actions are “the direct result of Russia’s unfounded and illegal aggression towards Ukraine — first in Crimea and now in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin needs to keep the Geneva promises and immediately rein in the militants.”

Just don’t hold your breath.

All of this serves Putin’s purposes and, in the case of Russian Jews, reflects a long Russian history of anti-Jewish pogroms. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that some of the masked pro-Russia militants who’ve seized government buildings in East Ukraine have now been identified as Russian military and intelligence forces.

We’re watching a de facto Putin destabilization and invasion —implemented with few serious consequences.

In an NPR interview, chess master, economist and Harvard Professor Kenneth Rogoff said Putin is playing a game revealing good tactics but perhaps bad strategy: Putin is making gains in the short term but could hurt himself in the long-term. Indeed, Putin’s behavior on several fronts has been a jolting bucket of ice water thrown on a world that seemingly had concluded that some of 20th century tensions were finally over. As polls show Putin’s domestic popularity soar, he’s giving Europe and the U.S. cause to isolate him —and never trust him again.

What happened? In a recent interview in The Daily Beast, Russian expert Strobe Talbott blames the Russian Federation’s first President, the drunken Yeltsin, for picking as prime minister the man who would start dismembering Yeltsin’s and Gorbachev’s legacy.

Still, Talbott told Eleanor Clift that “he believes that 29 years after Mikhail Gorbachev became the last leader of the Soviet Union and the reformer who made post-Soviet Russia possible, the country has moved into the international community. There are a lot of Russians who do not want to live in Putin’s Russia, he says, and they will carry the day. When and how that might happen, he did not say.”

You want to see the embodiment of political retro? Look at Putin.

The 20th century is dead: long live the revived 20th century.

Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He can be reached at jgandelman@themoderatevoice.com.

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