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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Tail That Wags the Dog

The world is witnessing "the swiftest advance of democratic institutions in history," U.S. President George W. Bush declared recently. That prospect is troubling the Kremlin's equivalent of Bush adviser Karl Rove, who is hard at work on a plan to outflank the march of Western politics into Russia's historical empire.

Critics and allies alike attribute this large ambition to Vladislav Surkov, who occupies the same jobs -- deputy chief of staff and political counselor to President Vladimir Putin -- that Rove holds at the White House.

Little known outside Russia, where he sees few foreign visitors, Surkov is the front-line commander in a contest of big ideas about democracy's reach into former Soviet republics. He has set out to co-opt or preempt the street politics that triggered peaceful revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere. The idea is not to join but to own the forces that have thwarted the Kremlin in Kiev and Tbilisi.

If one Rove is enough for you, you may breathe easier to discover that personalities as well as differing political systems separate the 41-year-old Surkov, who is subtle and silken in manner, from Rove, 54, who can be abrasive and basic.

Surkov insinuates where the Texan issues commands. The Russian can afford to understate: He can pull levers of secret power that Rove can only dream of in shaping the political landscape. The Rove-Surkov analogy, widespread in Russia, is admittedly imperfect.

But the shorthand nonetheless provides a revealing comment about the times and the powerful jobs that have shaped both men. They are practitioners of the mechanics of national politics who work in an electronic era dominated by insecurity and unsettling change. Consider this compressed summary of the message that Surkov delivers through state-controlled media and rare public statements:

What Russia experienced in the 1990s was not a functioning democracy. It was immorality and chaos in government. This leadership works to restore order and values, to fight terrorists who murder children and innocents. Our political opponents do not understand the challenge and the means needed to prevail.

Substitute Bill Clinton and the Democrats for Boris Yeltsin and his free-market cronies and you hear Rovian echoes. But the battle is even more pitched in Russia, where the very nature of democracy is up for grabs.

A core belief unites the Putin team: Russia will never go back to the confusion and disorder of the Yeltsin era. Russia must find its way to being a "sovereign democracy" that protects the country's cultural traditions, economic assets and strategic military power from foreign influence or domination.

This puts the Kremlin directly at odds with -- or perhaps in the path of -- a big idea that was outlined recently in Poland during the 25th anniversary of the Solidarity uprising against communist rule. A new model of revolution -- one that is peaceful and that works because it is supported by mass civic protests -- is said to be replacing the violent, vanguard-led revolutionary model of the past.

The democratizing force that Solidarity represented eventually rolled eastward through the Rose and Orange revolutions of Georgia and Ukraine and must upend Uzbekistan, Belarus and Putin's Russia next. Or so it is said, directly in Warsaw by Solidarity veterans, and implicitly in Bush's speeches on global democracy.

But the Kremlin is shifting gears to make sure that it can put its own crowds in the streets and deploy its own "nongovernmental" entities if the time comes. Surkov has created the youth organization Nashi, or Us, and helped organize superficially competing political parties to support Putin in a crunch. The Kremlin has also relentlessly stifled independent media.

A recent visit to the Kremlin suggested to me that Putin's team believes the United States and Western civic groups helped organize street protests that blocked an electoral outcome that would have favored Viktor Yanukovych, the candidate Putin backed during Ukraine's presidential elections last year over Viktor Yushchenko. Street power, not democratic transformation, was decisive.

"If that is the view, it is naive," says outgoing Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, whose 10 years in office completed Poland's transition from totalitarianism to democracy. "Trying to own the media, the parties and everything else is a totally artificial approach in today's interconnected world. You will soon find that 'your' NGOs are not 'yours' at all."

Kwasniewski, who visited Washington on Wednesday, was a young official in the Polish Communist Party and participated in the decisive round-table talks that led to free elections.

"What I learned is that you can only have two situations: You have a door that is open, or you can have a door that is closed. If you try to leave the door of a dictatorship open a bit the force will build up and rip the door off its hinges."

That's a lesson worth consideration in Moscow.

Jim Hoagland is a columnist for The Washington Post, where this comment first appeared.