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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chutzpah, Russian-Style

The nearest equivalent the Russian language has to the word chutzpah is naglost. In President Vladimir Putin, the Russian nation has found the embodiment of naglost.

Naglost: During the question-and-answer session following your speech on Saturday to the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy, you were asked about the Oct. 7 murder (on your birthday, Mr. President) of muckraking journalist Anna Politkovskaya. You never quite got around to uttering her name. But you did helpfully point out that in the past 18 months "the largest number of journalists were killed in Iraq."

True. But Moscow is not a war zone. And next to Russia, Iraq has a reasonably free press. Thirteen journalists have been murdered contract-style since you took office, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In not one of these cases has a suspect been convicted. Politkovskaya herself complained of "the weekly summons to the Prosecutor General's Office to sign statements about practically every article I write (the first question being: 'How and where did you obtain this information?')." Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev described her murder as "a blow to the entire democratic, independent press." You chose to eulogize her by noting her influence "was minimal."

Naglost: Your speech in Munich contained a curious broadside against the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which you denounced for "imposing a regime that determines how these states should live and develop."

That may not have been the most eye-catching of your comments, but it was the most revealing. Among its other benign functions, the OSCE bureaucracy monitors elections among its 56 members. That never raised an eyebrow until the OSCE raised a red flag over the Ukrainian election of November 2004, which had been rigged in favor of your preferred candidate, Viktor Yanukovych. The OSCE's verdict was crucial to having the results overturned and a new election called. You've never forgiven it. Since then, the OSCE's election-monitoring office has come under a relentless barrage of criticism from your Foreign Ministry and from other former Soviet republics with questionable democratic credentials, all with the view to putting the monitors under your political control.

Naglost: So now you tell the Munich conferees that "no one feels safe" in the face of U.S. military, economic, cultural, political, legal and educational assertiveness. That's one way to look at it.

Then again, some 4 million Georgians didn't feel especially safe when unaccounted explosions -- reliably attributed to your security services -- disrupted fuel supplies to Tbilisi in the dead of last winter. Nor did hundreds of thousands of Georgians living in Russia feel safe after you imposed trade, travel and even postal bans on the country last fall, following Tbilisi's expulsion of four of your spies. As to your question about NATO's enlargement -- "we have the right to ask: Against whom is this expansion intended?" -- the answer, of course, is you. You don't bully the Baltic states the way you do Georgia, Ukraine and even Belarus because the former are members of the European Union and have a U.S. security guarantee at their back.

Naglost: Speaking of feeling unsafe, a recent item in the Daily Telegraph reports that a Russian court in the southern city of Novorossiisk condemned nine members of the ethnic minorities rights group Froda for having an "unsanctioned" tea with two German students. "We were told that, under the new law [on NGOs], any meeting of two or more people with the purpose of discussing publicly important issues had to be sanctioned by the local administration three days in advance," Froda director Tamara Karastelyova told the newspaper. New legislation also requires NGOs to receive official clearance for any planned events months in advance.

In Munich, you airily dismissed any suggestion that Russian NGOs operate under repressive conditions by claiming your registration requirements are "not that different from registration systems in other countries." Just what other countries did you have in mind?

Naglost: "In the energy sector Russia intends to create uniform market principles and transparent conditions for all," you said Saturday. "It is obvious that energy prices must be determined by the market instead of being the subject of political speculation, economic pressure or blackmail."

Perhaps you define the words "market principles," "transparent" and "blackmail" differently in Russia than we do in the West. In December, the Russian government offered transparently phony environmental reasons -- "unauthorized tree felling" -- to force Royal Dutch Shell to relinquish control of its $20 billion Sakhalin-2 oil and gas project. In January, state-owned Gazprom used the threat of supply disruptions to gain control over Belarus' gas-pipeline network. This month, state prosecutors filed new charges against former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky that will keep him in a Siberian gulag past the 2008 election. Could you tell us just what might be in store for March?

Naglost: You savaged the United States for "an almost uncontained hyper-use of military force" in international relations and a "greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law."

That's funny, because when it comes to the hyper-use of force it's hard to top what your men did in Chechnya. "During Zachistkas [clean-up operations], I killed all men," one returning soldier told the American journalist Maura Reynolds. "I did not feel the least bit sorry for them. They deserved it. I didn't listen when they begged for their lives or when their wives cried and begged to have mercy on their husbands." There are many other testimonials like this.

And then there is the unsolved killing of Alexander Litvinenko, British subject. Not much of a mystery anymore as to where that polonium trail leads: Scotland Yard has found traces of it everywhere Moscow businessman Andrei Lugovoi went in London. So why do you deny British authorities a chance to question him?

A man who knows you and your friends well observes that the world has seen monarchies, dictatorships, military juntas and democracies, but "we have it only in science fiction stories of a secret service coming to power." Until now. Its defining characteristic: naglost.

Brett Stephens is a columnist for the The Wall Street Journal, where this comment appeared.