Thursday, January 6, 2011

Meet The New Boss

Beginning in 1991, Richard Nixon made four annual trips to Moscow with his colleague Dimitri Simes, who later became president of the Nixon Center in Washington. I was along on the first and the last, which Nixon completed a few weeks before his death in 1994.

I took this photo of Nixon and Simes in Moscow in April 1991, the year Nixon decided to throw his not-inconsiderable influence as a foreign policy authority behind Boris Yeltsin, who had emerged as a rival to western media darling Mikhail Gorbachev and later became the first president of the Russian Federation. Miffed that Nixon was seeing Yeltsin at all, Gorbachev, then general secretary of the Communist Party, delayed confirming his own meeting with Nixon until virtually the last minute.

Gorbachev had good reason to watch his flanks. During Nixon's meeting with KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov, we were startled when he sneered openly at Gorbachev's celebrated reforms. "We have had as much glasnost and perestroika as we can stomach," he said. A Kryuchkov aide later hinted to Simes that he and other hardliners were planning a coup. Nixon hurried to Washington to warn President George H. W. Bush. He also turned up his opposition to a Bush administration aid and trade package for Russia that might have shored up Gorbachev's position. The move against him came in August. Gorbachev rebuffed it, but it left him even weaker. The communist regime he led died on the last day of 1991.

It was a triumphant moment for Nixon, who had been inveighing against Soviet communism for his entire public career. Among the leaders he met on his post-1991 trips was Boris Nemtsov, a deputy prime minister under Yeltsin and today a leader in opposition to the regime of president-turned-PM-waxing-president-again Vladimir Putin. Nixon's meetings with Nemtsov and other young reformers had encouraged him to believe that political pluralism might someday take root in the former Leninist paradise.

Alas, the temperamental and undisciplined Yeltsin gave way to the all-too-disciplined Putin. It would've discouraged Nixon to no end to learn about what happened when Nemtsov had the temerity to criticize as "shameful" last month's trumped up verdict against oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky:
[Nemtsov] pointed out that the decision to sentence the former oil tycoon to the maximum 14-year term on Dec. 30 “had nothing to do with the rule of law” and predicted it would “have very negative consequences."

Mr Nemtsov did not have to wait long to be proved right. The next day, after speaking in a rally supporting freedom of assembly, he was arrested and sent to jail for the maximum 15-day sentence.

Off to jail in Moscow for speaking your mind. Sounds familiar. We won the Cold War for this?

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