Mirror, Mirror: Who's the Crookedest of All?

"I want to remind you that we have a proverb in Russia: 'One should not criticize a mirror if you have [a] crooked face.'"

-- President Vladimir Putin,

Oct. 5, The New York Times.

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

It's amazing how often an occurrence in Russia will be seized upon as evidence of a nascent dictatorship -- while an identical occurrence in America goes unnoted.

Consider the story of the U.S. government's attack on Greenpeace. Last year, two Greenpeaceniks armed with a protest banner climbed onto a cargo ship they said was illegally importing mahogany from Brazil, and earned themselves a weekend in jail.

So, a typical Greenpeaceniks-and-their-rubber-speedboats story -- until now. Fifteen months later, federal prosecutors have indicted Greenpeace itself. They say Greenpeace, in arriving uninvited onboard the ship, violated an 1872 law written to protect freshly landed sailors from those in port who'd seduce them with booze.

Pretty much everyone The New York Times interviewed agrees this is an assault on -- as Greenpeace puts it in court papers -- "a [civil disobedience] tradition that has endured from the Boston Tea Party through the modern civil rights movement." Legal experts said the only other precedent would be southern state prosecutors who tried to harass civil rights groups in the 1950s and 1960s.

Yet the story is buried inside the paper, and I doubt many will ever hear of it.

Can you imagine the reaction of the American media if Russian prosecutors were to indict all of Greenpeace over an obscure 1872 tsarist decree to protect weak-willed sailors from vodka? Vast acres of trees would be felled to make the paper to hold all the outraged ink. Op-ed writers would again ask, "Who is Vladimir Putin?" The tale would be added to the mounting pile of evidence that Russia is backsliding on democracy.

And then, corruption.

When Boris Yeltsin brought the shiny new reform penny Boris Nemtsov into the federal government, Nemtsov promised "democratic capitalism" -- starting with an end to secret government business deals. Yeltsin duly issued the 1997 decree mandating a new transparent approach, and Nemtsov was mocked on these very pages over the KamAZ-sized loopholes. (Secret, non-competitive parceling out of government business was allowed whenever this was judged, quote, "the best method," or whenever there was "an urgent need" to do so.)

Here in America, there's been much talk of closed, secretive divvying up of the Iraq pie to White House-friendly companies like Halliburton. Members of Congress have, Nemtsov-like, been promising change. Their answer can be found in S. 1689, a bill before the Senate that would spend $20 billion on Iraqi projects. The bill states, "none of the funds appropriated" can be used for any project "that uses other than full and open competitive contracting procedures." It then immediately adds that this requirement can be waived "as a result of unforeseen or emergency circumstances."

So is America's ongoing internal discussion about Russia -- including my own contributions over the years -- tinged with hysteria? Or are American institutions themselves turning away from democracy and integrity?

Longtime Russia-watchers based in Washington (and hence also longtime America-watchers) increasingly argue that we all have crooked faces today. "The difference in corruption is a matter of degrees," one of them told me recently, adding wryly, "but I used to think [America and Russia] were qualitatively different."

Another was blunter: "The only difference: The Americans have a J.D. [i.e., a law degree] after their names."

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, writes the Daily Outrage at: www.thenation.com