In 2010, a Russian leader took to the op-ed pages of The New York Times to issue a warning about civic life in his country. He wrote of "the acute struggle underway between democratic and antidemocratic tendencies," saying that "if the antidemocratic tendency is not reversed, all the gains of the previous years — not just the democratic process but even the much vaunted stability — will be jeopardized."
Vladimir Putin's Thursday op-ed in the Times might be the most talked-about column from a Russian president. But it's by no means the first. Since 2000, Mikhail Gorbachev — the last president of the Soviet Union — has written more than a dozen op-eds for the paper of record, opining on everything from the U.S.-Russian reset to the death of Margaret Thatcher. Under-riding most of his writings is worry for his country, and a kind of antidote to the swagger Putin put forward Thursday.
In a March 2010 op-ed, Gorbachev pointed to the year 2000 — when Putin took the helm — as "when I began to worry about the future of democracy in Russia." Gorbachev wrote that "the transfer of power to [Boris Yeltsin's] appointed heir" was "democratic in form but not in substance." Gorbachev writes that he was supportive of "decisive, tough measures" taken in Putin's first term, but that "stabilizing the country cannot be the only or the final goal.... Russia will progress with confidence only if it follows a democratic path. Recently, there have been a number of setbacks in this regard." What are those, exactly?
For instance, all major decisions are now taken by the executive branch, with the Parliament rubber-stamping formal approval. The independence of the courts has been thrown into question. We do not have a party system that would enable a real majority to win while also taking the minority opinion into account and allowing an active opposition. There is a growing feeling that the government is afraid of civil society and would like to control everything.
"What's holding Russia back," Gorbachev wrote, "is fear."
It's no surprise that Gorbachev and Putin don't agree with one another. In a March interview with the BBC, Gorbachev said that Putin's inner circle is full of "thieves and corrupt officials" and that the president needs to "not be afraid of his own people." As protests picked up in December 2011, Gorbachev called on Putin to step down. Putin, for his part, has partially blamed Gorbachev's late Soviet reforms for Russia's problems in the 1990s.
But even though Putin has largely succeeded in recent months at stifling opposition, that doesn't mean that his voice is the only one coming out of Russia. It's not even the only one that's been run in The New York Times. So sure, Putin can write in the Gray Lady that "we must not forget that God created us equal," while he institutes antigay laws. Because it only takes a five-second search of The Times archive to find his opposition.