Russian Humpty Dumpty can't be put together again

The post-communist empire that Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to cobble together is coming apart, decomposed by the centrifugal forces of democracy and freedom that suck peoples from the grasp of the Russian gravitational field.

The post-communist empire that Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to cobble together is coming apart, decomposed by the centrifugal forces of democracy and freedom that suck peoples from the grasp of the Russian gravitational field.

First Georgia fell away from Russian domination by ousting former Soviet Union Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Then Ukraine bolted by protesting for weeks in the streets to force official recognition of the victory of Viktor Yushchenko, a man Putin considered so dangerous that his KGB henchmen poisoned him. Then tiny Moldova turned aside the Russian mafia and voted for an anti-Russian collection of “communists” desperately trying to survive in an orange tide.

And now, in far away Kyrgyzstan, President Askar Akayev has resigned, clearing the way for the nation’s first free post-Soviet government. This, with the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania safely in NATO, means that half of the former Soviet states have joined the freedom bandwagon.

Thank the Lord. Putin represents a lethal cocktail combining unreconstructed communists, KGB secret police, Russia’s corrupt mafia and the old nomenklatura that ran the USSR. At home, he has stripped local democracy by preventing the independent election of governors and eviscerated national democracy by eliminating single-member districts and hanging the entire election on party slates drawn up by people at the top. In the process, he has made a mockery of free speech and the free press by bullying and buying it, reducing its once-noisy voice of liberty to a frightened whisper. Economically, he has destroyed the independent, privatized oil industry and reinvested the government monolith with full powers.

But as Putin seeks to bring down a second iron curtain around the former Soviet Union, he overreaches and misjudges the power of liberty and freedom to win the souls of men and women. With NATO nearby to check any military intervention and the European Union ready to provide economic succor, Putin cannot compete. His vision of Moscow autocracy holds little attraction while the West and democracy occupy the dreams of his would-be subjects.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said that Russia is either expanding or contracting. It cannot exist in stasis. So polyglot are the peoples that inhabit its many regions and so diverse are its repressed nationalities that Russia is either pushing outward, keeping its people in line as it bulges toward new acquisitions, or is imploding. Kissinger’s theory looks pretty valid today. Adopting Bob Dylan’s phrase, if Russia isn’t “busy being born,” it’s “busy dying.”

The next frontier in the fight for freedom in Eastern Europe will be Belarus, the most populous and European of the former Soviet satellites left in Russia’s orbit. Belarus, with its dictator/strongman Aleksandr Lukashenko and its 10 million people, is likely the next place for an orange revolution.

But the real question is: How long can Moscow exert its hold over its own Russian territory and over the minds of its subjects? Russia has become as oil-dependent as any Arab nation. As long as oil prices soar, Putin has the economic muscle to propitiate his people. But will bread be enough for the Russian soul? Will the centrifugal tendencies reach all the way into the Russian heartland?

As President Bush made clear in his second inaugural address, freedom is contagious and not easily contained. As Ukraine, by far the most populous of the former Soviet states, begins to move into NATO and, inevitably, into the European Union, the waves of democracy will lap at Russia’s shores and the wind will blow over her cities.

Not even Putin can stop the scent of freedom from arousing the dreams of liberty. And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men may not be able to put Russia back together again.

Morris is the author of Rewriting History, a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History.