Shim Jae Hoon at PostGlobal

Shim Jae Hoon

South Korea

Shim Jae Hoon is a Seoul-based journalist and commentator writing for a variety of international publications including YaleGlobal Online, The Straits Times of Singapore, The Taipei Times and Korea Herald. He was a correspondent for Far Eastern Economic Review in Seoul, Taipei and Jakarta. Close.

Shim Jae Hoon

South Korea

Shim Jae Hoon is a Seoul-based journalist and commentator writing for a variety of international publications including YaleGlobal Online, The Straits Times of Singapore, The Taipei Times and Korea Herald. more »

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Foreign Bogey an Old Dictator's Trick

Seoul, South Korea -- Nothing in President Vladimir Putin's career background (in the KGB) nor anything in the long history of the harsh Soviet system, of which he is an inheritor, suggests that Moscow is likely to hand over Andrei Lugovoi, the former KGB agent wanted for the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in London. It's not simply that the Russian Constitution expressly forbids extradition of its nationals. It has more to do with the nature of Russia's transition from a totalitarian system to authoritarian rule.

Validity of this line of reasoning may be seen from the reactions to Litvinenko's killing by a variety of Russian government officials, including Mr. Putin. He has portrayed London's demand for Lugovoi as a colonial mindset, not an extradition for the purpose of investigating a suspected criminal act. Lugovoi himself has angrily denounced the British position on the grounds of sovereignty, a case involving Russia's collective pride. Such a position better provides him protection against extradition.

Besides, Litvinenko's murder comes within a string of other assassinations involving high-profile Russian figures, both private and public, since 1994 and climaxing in the killings of independent journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the deputy head of the Russian central bank. These cases involved the government's reputation, one way or the other. None of these cases has ever been solved, except to indicate some official hand. In the case of Politkovskaya, why would the Russian Mafia kill someone for reporting on human rights abuses during the Chechen war? The use of polonium-210, a highly toxic material, is itself suggestive of involvement of state authorities quite outside the realm of the Russian mafia. In a way, nothing is more damning to the Russian government than the use of this highly secretive poison that can be obtained only from state agencies.

The problem with this kind of criminal case is that dictators are able to exploit it to condemn foreign interference, imagined or otherwise. That's exactly what happened under the rule of South Korea's President Park Chung Hee in the summer of 1973, when KCIA agents kidnapped the opposition leader, Kim Dae Jung, from a Tokyo hotel. Park first blamed North Korean agents for the kidnapping, then criticized Japan's colonial mentality for demanding his repatriation. In the end, that never happened, until Park's own killing by his top intelligence officer years later. He knew Japanese politicians could be coaxed into signing a wish-washy deal that would allow him to get off the hook.

Park used Japan's pressure for Kim's repatriation to close ranks at home, mobilizing the country to greater unity behind his embattled regime. Liberal oppositionists were denounced as foreign agents, just as Russian dissident and chess player Kasparov is today harassed and called an agent of foreign interests. Putin himself is successfully unifying the post-Soviet Russia by showcasing his "strong leadership," which the Russian populace, long tired of chaos and deprivation from the post-totalitarian interregnum, welcomes. Putin is giving Russians, especially the young, a cause to unite behind the government against foreign interference. Using the foreign bogey to maintain domestic unity is old trick of many dictatorships.

Like Korea's Park, Putin's nationalism has been helped by strong economic performance based on the soaring international prices for oil and gas. Rising exports and a strong ruble have resulted in large foreign reserves. At last, Putin is able to prove the point that China was right in starting with economic reforms ahead of political democratization. For the moment, he is riding high on waves of populism by denouncing and putting on trial oligarchs like Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Boris Berezosky. They are painted as the enemy of the people who enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary Russians.

The challenge before Putin is to find enough evidence of post-Soviet anomalies to keep his popularity running high. To do so, he needs to depend on two overriding factors: high global commodity prices that keep the economy afloat and a constant adrenalin rush on the part of his people that overshadows the steady demand for more democratic accountability and transparency as the Russian society moves forward. He's clearly blessed by the first factor. But if Kasparov's agitation for a more representative form of government is any indication, the curtain could soon come down on Putin's politics of rabble-rousing. In Russia today, the Soviet system has ended but not its psychology of achieving political ends by manipulating public mindsets.

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