During most of last year our Center has been sending signals about the looming crisis with Russia. We have pointed to the motivations of Vladimir Putin, described the nature of his regime as expansive and warned against the complacency of the West in dealing with him. We warned that he will go a very long way to whip up nationalist sentiments at home and abroad. He sees our democratic way of life as the single most important threat to his power.
Most commentators in the West overcomplicate Putin. They shouldn't. He is desperately trying to portray himself as a descendant of the Czars, but he must surely know, power and money alone does not turn you into a royal. Perhaps a painting of Nicholas I hangs in his antechamber, but it is pictures of Josif Stalin and Lavrenty Berija, the once powerful head of the dreaded NKVD, which must be hanging in his inner sanctum. They are the ones whom he not so secretly admires. It would be smart to dust off the books in the attic about the Soviet Union and talk a lot more to Eastern Europeans. It would help understand his minset.
One of the overlooked threats Putin poses is the model he is offering and consciously promoting as an alternative to our democratic societies. Russia is not the only hybrid or illiberal democracy, but it is now the leader of that pack. In these systems the framework of democracy is there. There is a constitution (there was one in Soviet times), there is an elected parliament (there was one during Communism), but both are emptied out. There are opposition parties, except they are severely handicapped and disadvantaged. There is a press which may seem diverse, but is controlled and it can hardly be called free when journalists are harassed and even murdered and when state media rules. A hybrid system may look like a democracy, but it certainly doesn't feel or taste like one. No checks and balances.
It is disappointing, that the West has not had a better understanding of the desperate calls from russian civil society, which has been loud and clear for years now. The democratic conscience of Russia was silenced and we were equally silent in our response. The Duma adopted the "Foreign Agents Law" a year ago to curb and criminalize civil organizations which receive assistance from abroad. Western capitals went on about doing business as usual although this was clearly a canary in the coalmine.
How is it that Washington, Berlin, Brussels, Paris and even London did not see the writing on the wall? All these signs were a preparation of a bigger strategic move, and more is to come. Ukraine is part of the bigger picture for Putin, it is not just about Crimea or Eastern Ukraine. Mr.Putin will continue to weaken the west, he will use old Soviet tactics. He will revive the old KGB methods to work the naïve and disillusioned, at times clueless parts of our society. He will continue to drive a wedge between our countries, deal with them individually. Extreme nationalist, anti-European and anti-American movements will be the new peace movements. We need to get off the complacency drug, thinking that he will stop with Ukraine. He won't, unless we push back hard.
Fighting the Putin disease, there is a key medicine, which protects our immune system: shoring up freedom and democracy. There is a reason why the most open and transparent democracies have weathered the storms of the past years best. We as a family must pay attention to the maintenance of the health of democracy in our midst. We have as a community neglected the signs of serious backsliding in some members of NATO and the EU. The integrity and cohesion of our democracies, the quality of our democratic governance, the checks and balances is very much part of our resilience. We cannot allow hybrid systems within the alliance and the European Union. Just one bad apple can spoil the bunch.
Democracy in some countries in the family, like my own Hungary, have gone off track. This poses a threat because this makes the country vulnerable and will be Putin's target, even if for now Hungary's leaders think they can "navigate" between East and West. They, and our community of democracies must see the dangers. For make no mistake, Putin is eying our countries, will exploit weaknesses, will feed nationalisms and false hopes of territorial gains, driving a wedge between these countries and the rest of the family. He is spending billions to support this.
Our leaders must also show moral integrity. I am surprised the German Bundestag has not yet adopted a law banning former Chancellors from taking jobs in companies in which authoritarian regimes have a majority stake. I am offended that Gerhard Schroeder, the former Chancellor is speaking out in support of Vladimir Putin. It's a disgrace. He should have resigned instead.
I wonder if he is giving advice not just to Vladimir, but to Edward as well? Edward Snowden that is.