A meteor streaked across the Russian sky and exploded over a populated area with the force of a nuclear bomb last month, injuring hundreds of people and casting the light on the world's largest country that has failed to put anti-Americanism in the rearview mirror despite more than two decades of post-Soviet development.
Once dashboard-camera video footage of the phenomenon spread across the Internet, Vladimir Zhirinovsky — the founder and leader of Russia's ultra-nationalist LDPR party and a former vice chairman of the lower house of the country's legislature — announced that it was not a meteor falling but a secret U.S. weapon being tested.
A showman of Russian politics, Mr. Zhirinovsky is notorious for making outrageous public pronouncements aimed at pleasing Russian President Vladimir Putin. The latter uses Mr. Zhirinovsky as a scare for those in the Russian middle class who are unhappy with the country’s systemic corruption and his autocratic regime that perpetuates it.
Unfortunately, many uneducated Russians believe Mr. Zhirinovsky and support him and Mr. Putin, bringing to mind a propaganda technique that Adolf Hitler termed the Big Lie — a lie so preposterous that people believe it to be the truth because they can’t imagine anybody making it up. According to opinion polls, close to half the Russians do not believe the United States is a friendly country.
Until recently it was not that important for us in the U.S. because the livelihood of the Russian elite depended in part on the goodwill of the West, and its leader, the United States.
Because there are no guarantees in Russia that you won’t be falsely accused of fraud and jailed with all your accounts seized, Russians prefer to keep assets abroad, preferably in Europe or the United States. But now that Russia is starting to feel the consequences of the world recession and its profits from selling natural resources — primarily crude oil and natural gas — are running thin, the Kremlin is pushing laws that don't allow government officials and parliamentarians to hold bank accounts abroad.
This policy shift is designed to seal the control Mr. Putin exerts over his vassals, bringing to heel those who stray from his flock, lured by guarantees of personal freedom and property rights protection that we in the United States often taken for granted.
Some political experts in Russia say this policy change stems from Mr. Putin’s reaction to the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, a bill signed into law in December. It replaces the Jackson-Vanik Amendment — an old law the Kremlin considered anti-Russian — and is loathed by the Kremlin even more.
The old law denied Russia normal trade relations but used to be routinely waived by U.S. presidents following the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The new law — prompted by a notorious quarter-billion-dollar corruption scandal in Russia — denies American visas to corrupt officials and human-rights violators and freezes their U.S. bank accounts, covering all foreign nations.
Mr. Putin apparently considers the new law a personal affront and an attempt to make him soften his grip on Russia.
But his decision to tighten that grip is nevertheless primarily dictated by his fear that he may soon be unable to afford to continue to increase police and military wages and maintain social programs that have let him get away with his dictatorial practices and a mere pretense of fighting corruption.
However, Mr. Putin has little choice. He has painted himself into the corner by leading the secret-police-dominated elite that has amassed enormous wealth through corruption and now simply can't afford to let him go and face public scrutiny and likely jail.
He is doomed to the fate of a dictator whose only hope is that the Big Lie may work for a while.
Contact Mike Sigov at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6089, or on Twitter @mikesigovblade.