Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Bush's Budget and "Wounded Travelers"

The federal budget is not just an accounting tool--it's a statement about our nation's values and priorities. This week, Bush released a budget that Representative Jan Schakowsky calls a "weapon of mass destruction."

It would drastically underfund domestic initiatives, from education to children's healthcare to homeless shelters to support for small businesses. The vast majority of Americans will be asked to sacrifice, with one exception: the millionaires who can afford to give something up. Their tax cuts--the same tax cuts that brought us unprecedented deficits--would be protected and likely even extended under Bush's proposal.

Bush's reckless policies are mortgaging our country's future. When he took office, the budget had a projected 10-year surplus of $5.6 trillion. We now have a more than $3 trillion deficit. That $9 trillion swing is the largest fiscal reversal in US history.

These are not the right priorities for our nation. It is not only fiscally irresponsible, it is morally wrong to cap spending for the most vulnerable and the weakest among us--children, seniors, veterans, the poor and the working class--while pursuing tax cuts for the wealthiest without limits or restraint.

As a new project of the invaluable Center for Community Change points out, Bush once promised that as a country, "When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side." But his budgets have never matched that rhetoric, as a new TV ad produced by the Center makes clear.

This week, the Center is launching an ad campaign to engage voters in the "red" states of Missouri and Tennessee; the spot will also run in Washington, DC so the nation's decision makers will see it. The ad, titled "Jericho," focuses on the biblical language that Bush has used repeatedly to depict himself as a compassionate conservative and questions whether Bush's budget reflects the moral values of a compassionate man.

It's time to hold Bush accountable for those "wounded travelers." As Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center writes, "We cannot allow this nation to cross to the other side." (Click here for more info about the CCC and click here to help support its ad campaign.)

Single Women Against Bush

A new report recently highlighted in Ruy Teixeira's valuable Public Opinion Watch shows that one of the bright spots for the Democrats in the 2004 election was their performance among single women. The study, done by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for Womens' Voices/Women Vote, showed that the "marriage gap is a defining dynamic in today's politics, eclipsing the gender gap, with marital status a significant predictor of the vote, independent of the effects of age, race, income, education or gender."

As Teixeira writes, the new research shows that unmarried women, who voted overwhelmingly for Kerry, "are social and economic progressives advancing a tolerant set of values." One more reason to oppose marriage. (Click here to check out the full report.)

Deeds, Not Words

In his State of the Union address tomorrow night, we can expect Bush to riff on a familiar theme: the onward march of "freedom." When it comes to this President though, watch the deeds, ignore the rhetoric.

Few would argue that achieving "freedom" and "liberty" are valuable goals though, as historian Eric Foner reminds us, "freedom by its very nature is a contested concept, to which different individuals and groups have imparted different meanings." What progressives need to do is reclaim these terms from an Administration that has corroded their meaning. It's time to stand up for a redefined and affirmative vision of national security and US foreign-policy. The good news: there's a real political opening for a credible and alternative progressive security policy. And as John Powers observed recently in a provocative piece in the LA Weekly, "Money and organization can only take any political movement so far." Ideas matter.

We know what not to do. The New Republic's Peter Beinart recently argued that Democrats should adopt a get-tough crusade, launching a "war against fanatical Islam." But this strategy not only buys into the GOP's fear-mongering and militarized approach to the threat of terror, it is more likely to give life to Bin-Ladenism than it is to liberate people in the Islamic world or serve to protect America's security.

The muscular crusade against terrorism that some in the Democratic Party see as the only way to stop Islamic terrorism-and win votes--ignores the fact that it was previous crusades that helped create bin Laden in the first place. Crusades masquerading as foreign policy will weaken our security and divert precious resources from the real fight for hearts and minds in the Middle East and beyond.

Instead of engaging the Republicans on their terms, progressives need to have a debate framed by our own concerns and values. And fighting terrorism should not be the alpha and omega of America's security policy. Yes, Al-Qaeda remains a threat, but it's a plain fact that "terrorism" is not a menace meriting hysteria or neglect of other national priorities; nor is the "Global War on Terror" a compelling justification for US aggression around the world.

"Islamic fundamentalism is actually on the wane in much of the world," Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, recently argued on the Sunday chat show ABC's This Week. Islamic fundamentalism "does not have the kind of appeal that worldwide Communism did,"Zakaria added.

Progressives can and should debate what an effective security policy would look like. But we also now know that in the fight against stateless terrorism, the war in Iraq was an act of self-sabotage; despite the relative lack of violence this past Sunday, and the courage of millions of Iraqis willing to risk death in order to vote, the invasion of Iraq was an act of hubris that has destroyed US credibility in foreign capitals, killed more than 1,400 US troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis, and drained the US treasury.

We no longer hold the moral high ground after the revelations of torture by US troops at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. In general, Bush's "doctrine" has corroded the rule of law abroad and civil liberties at home, with no measurable gain for our security.

Writing recently in the Financial Times, Michael Lind persuasively argued that Bush's security policy has backfired. "A new world order is indeed emerging," Lind wrote, but Bush's strategies have generated so much ill-will abroad that "its architecture is being drafted in Asia and Europe, at meetings to which Americans have not been invited."

"Practically all new international institution-building of any long-term importance in global diplomacy and trade occurs without American participation."

A fascinating and underreported 119-page study, "Mapping the Global Future: Report of the National Intelligence Council's 2020 Project," recently issued by the CIA's National Intelligence Council, underscores Lind's arguments by highlighting the steep decline of US moral, political and economic capital. Available on the CIA's website, the report predicts that in 2020 China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and other nations will have emerged as powerful rivals to US global dominance, "transform[ing] the geopolitical landscape" and significantly eroding US power.

What, then, will a democratic alternative to Bush's doctrine look like? First, let's understand that there is a constituency in the US and the world for a progressive-left security policy. (Even Bush's staunch ally Tony Blair seemed to suggest as much in his speech at last week's World Economic Forum in Davos.) The Democratic Party should ground its affirmative vision in the reality of public opinion.

In November 2001, the highly regarded Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) reported that a majority of Americans supported a multilateral approach, wanted a strong UN role in the world, and endorsed using humanitarian and development aid to build good will abroad. In April 2003, PIPA released a poll showing that the American people didn't like Bush's "global cop" vision, and that they endorsed global institutions like the UN that confronted global challenges.

According to a recent Chicago Council of Foreign Relations poll, a large majority of the American people think the US should have "strong evidence that the country is in imminent danger of being attacked" before we use military force. This is a powerful rebuke to the pre-emptive war doctrine, which is at the heart of Bush's security policy. So, too, is the finding also in the Chicago CFR poll that a majority of Americans support the use of diplomatic and economic tools rather than military ones to fight terrorism. Last week, the Pew Research Center revealed that 76 percent of registered Democrats believed that "good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace."

Democrats, in particular, want to see a real alternative to Bush's go-it-alone jingoism; as The Atlantic's Jack Beatty put it, "the neo-cons are history's fools. The strategy they championed was the wrongest possible strategy for the wrongest possible moment in the wrongest possible region of the world." (Abject failure hasn't slowed down the neocons however; full of typical arrogance, in a letter to congress dated January 28, the neoconservative think-tank/power broker known as The Project for the New American Century (PNAC) essentially called for a draft without actually using the 'D' word.)

The second thing progressives should do is talk about a more constructive, intelligent use of American power exemplified by things like the founding of the UN, support for universal human rights, and our commitment, however imperfect, to a framework of multilateralism. We should urge America to support a leadership that wins respect at home and abroad through global partnerships, and understands that the key to world order, peace and prosperity is not American unilateral dominance but the strengthening of international governance and the global rule of law.

Third, the US needs to redefine security to meet the challenges of the 21st century, at a time when the world is increasingly interdependent. The reality is that overwhelming military power is ill suited to dealing with the central challenges of the early 21st century: stateless terrorists with global reach, the worst pandemic in human history (AIDS), the spread of weapons of mass destruction, insecure and decrepit nuclear arsenals in the former Soviet Union, genocidal conflict and starvation afflicting Africa, environmental degradation, and a global economy that is generating greater instability and inequality. These are problems that no one country, however powerful, can solve on its own.

The new definition of national security should include using US power to lead a global campaign to meet the UN's Millennium Goals--halving world poverty, cutting child mortality by two-thirds and guaranteeing every child primary education by 2015; strengthening multilateral and verifiable arms control treaties, encouraging nuclear disarmament and increasing funding for Nunn-Lugar and other programs aimed at eliminating nuclear stockpiles in the former Soviet Union; ratifying the Kyoto, ICC, ABM and other treaties to strengthen our alliances; reducing our dependence on foreign oil by forming a global alliance that invests in alternative energy sources; and engaging the world so that America becomes a source of hope, not fear

Democracy cannot be imposed from without on nations with different cultures and histories. Freedom, liberty and democracy are built not in the ashes of war and occupation but from a history of struggle, civic work and economic development. The American people have no appetite for a religious crusade. What they would like to see is a principled foreign policy. Progressives need to offer the American people an affirmative vision.

Dean Does NYC

Howard Dean was in NYC this weekend for the last of the candidate forums for DNC chair before the party's final meeting from February 10 to 12th. On Saturday he spoke to New York's DNC members; and on Sunday, he met with the state party chairmen. (About fifty of the DNC's 447 voting members have already announced support for Dean, far more than any other candidate.)

On Saturday night, I saw Dean at a small gathering where he spoke passionately about his vision for the Democrats. His smart and pungent comments about how the party needs to give genuine power to the grassroots and build the new politics at the "netroots"; support and build state parties; develop a fifty-state strategy; mobilize the young; change the way we talk about issues, without changing our core principles, makes me pretty certain that Dean has checked out Zack Exley's must-read "Letter to the Next DNC Chair."

Exley--former director of organizing for MoveOn.org, and former Dean and Kerry net mobilizer--describes a new kind of politics emerging and lays out a fascinating scenario for how the Democratic Party can build a vast, permanent field organization with the "New Grassroots" by leveraging email, the web and a little technology.

I particularly like this former, grassroots labor organizer's grounded enthusiasm about what can be done to reshape the party--and build a winning infrastructure for 2006 and 2008. "Using the online assets that Democrats built in 2004, we should be able to jump light years ahead of the Republican field organization. If we do, it will not be thanks to Internet Magic, but rather thanks to mixing new online tools and resources with good old-fashioned grassroots organizing, focusing on results."

Dean gets what Exley is talking about. As he said about one of the central jobs facing the DNC, "In order to make good on the new empowerment, we have to genuinely give power to the states and grassroots. I believe in order to have power, you have to give up power." Power needs to come from the grassroots." Dean gets it. Exley gets it. Do the DNC's 447 delegates get it? We'll soon find out.

Clean Elections in Maine

Thanks to Michael Sylvester, the executive director of Common Cause in Maine, for his letter clarifying some key features of his state's revoutionary Clean Elections Act. I'm pleased to post it below and you can check out Common Cause's website for more info. I'd also like to encourage further dialogue on this topic--and other issues that are addressed in this space--so please click here to send letters to Editor's Cut.

Dear Ms. vanden Heuvel,

I appreciated your recent Editor's Cut reviewing several progressive state initiatives. These laws are models for how we can create change at the local level even when national politics might not leave a very good taste in our mouths.

I wanted to point out, however, that you were mistaken about Clean Elections in Maine. You stated that the Maine State Legislature had approved the Clean Election Act when, in fact, the law is even more revolutionary because it was voted in by Citizen's Initiative in 1996. You also stated that over 50 percent of candidates made use of public financing but the great news is that nearly 80 percent of all candidates used public financing. This number (a hair over 79 percent) includes over 50 percent of Republican candidates and all Green Independent candidates.

The Maine Clean Election Act is an enormous success story and Common Cause is working with our allies to pass a similar law in the state of Connecticut. Yet even the Maine Clean Election Act's success has not stopped attacks on the law. In this legislative session, we will see bills to repeal MCEA and to allow loopholes in the law even as we fight to close loopholes in the current law and to continue to pass progressive legislation including a bill to limit all PACS to a $250 limit, to introduce Instant Run-Off Voting and bills to make election day a state holiday. Keep fighting the good fight in the states. Someday we'll get the chance to roll it out nationally.


Michael Sylvester,Executive Director, Common Cause in Maine

The Power of Nightmares

Last week, the BBC re-broadcast a provocative documentary series which challenges the idea that Al Qaeda is the center of a uniquely powerful, unified and well-organized international terrorist conspiracy.

"The attacks on September 11th," according to the film's director Adam Curtis--one of Britain's leading documentary filmmakers--"were not the expression of a confident and growing movement. They were acts of desperation by a small group frustrated by their failure which they blamed on the power of America. It is also important," Curtis adds, "to realize that many within the Islamist movement were against this strategy." (This view accords with those held by terrorism experts--like Peter Bergen--who argue that Al Qaeda is largely a spent force that has changed from a tight-knit organization capable of carrying out 9/11 to more of an ideological threat with loose networks in many nations.)

The film also challenges other accepted articles of faith in the so-called war on terror, and documents that much of what we have been told about a centralized, international terrorist threat "is a fantasy that has been exaggerated and distorted by politicans. It is a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the security services and the international media."

The series does not claim that terrorism poses no threat, nor does it challenge the idea that radical Islamism has led to gruesome violence throughout the world. "The bombs in Madrid and Bali showed clearly the seriousness of the threat--but they are not evidence of a new and overwhelming threat unlike any we have experienced before. And above all they do not--in the words of the British government--'threaten the life of the nation.' "

First broadcast in Great Britain last November, The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear has yet to air on this side of the Atlantic. Why is it that no television outlet in the United States has yet to broadcast this critically-acclaimed film?

In a recent e-mail interview, Curtis told me he "is very keen" that the documentary be shown in the US, and that he is "talking to some people at the moment " However, he added, "I think the networks won't show it because they are frightened by possible reactions. I think this is very wrong. The reaction in Britain has been extraordinary with the overwhelming majority praising the BBC for its confidence in putting the series out.

Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, Curtis says, "quoted the films approvingly in his Christmas address to the nation. I think we were pushing at an already open door--and I suspect the same is true for America. There is a lurking feeling in many peoples' minds that this state of fear doesn't quite add up--and I have received hundreds of e-mails from people in the US asking to see the series since Robert Scheer published a column about the film in the Los Angeles Times on January 11. I am sure it will be shown somewhere."

I also asked Curtis what he thought Americans could learn from the film. His reply:

"The United States is the most powerful, confident and in many ways, the freest civilization ever in the history of the world. It is extraordinary that it has become so paralyzed by the fear of radical Islamist terrorism--it really is a lion quaking in the face of a mouse. Radical Islamists do represent a serious threat and will use terror against civilians, but when you look at them historically, as the series does, you come to see that they are not some new force with a unique power to bring the strongest nation in the world to its knees.

"Yet America has become trapped by that fear--riven by nightmare visions of 'sleeper cells' in its midst for which there is little or no evidence. The series attempts to explain why this strange state of affairs has come about and it argues that politicians have found in fear a way of restoring their power. In a populist consumerist age where their authority and legitimacy has declined dramatically politicians have simply discovered in the War on Terror a way of making themselves indispensable to their populations again by promising to protect us from something that only they can see."

Curtis has promised to send me a copy of the documentary. But millions of Americans deserve to see a film that offers a rigorously documented and credible counter to the conventional narrative of a "war on terror."

If you agree, write HBO and ask why it isn't showing this BBC documentary. You can also call on PBS stations to be true to their missions by asking them to air The Power of Nightmares.

Knowing When to Quit

As we remember Johnny Carson's many gifts, perhaps his greatest was his ability to know when it was time to voluntarily step out of the spotlight and never look back. A talent that's all too rare in American life.

It's hard to know if Harvard President Larry Summer's foot-in-mouth disease is the result of nature or nurture, but his political tone deafness was once again on display at a diversity conference where he suggested that women were innately less skilled at math and science then men.

Despite continuing revelations that torture was endemic in Iraq and our efforts to stabilize the country are failing, Donald Rumsfeld not only holds on to his job but apparently is targeting sites in Iran. The septuagenarian should have retired after Afghanistan.

And if that weren't enough, Newt Gingrich, who was deposed by his own revolutionary comrades for being too much of a loose cannon, is floating the idea of running for President.

The only bright spot this week: Michael Powell, having secured America from any future Super Bowl wardrobe malfunctions, is stepping down. One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

Taking It to the States

As Bush begins his second term today, progressives must fight hard in DC against the dismantling and rollback of the twentieth century's hard-earned rights and liberties. But with legislative--and this week, literal--gridlock in our capitol city, it's time to recognize that the road to renewal may well run through the states.

As Justice Louis Brandeis argued in the 1930s, "It is one of the happy accidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory, and try novel social and economic experiments."

A savvy progressive state-based strategy (and some of the smartest minds in politics today are at work crafting this ) would seize on this "happy accident," and turn to the states to develop and promote the reforms and ideas that, eventually, will make their way onto the national agenda. Here's a quick guide to ten initiatives (in both red and blue states) that are already winning beyond the Beltway.

1) Raising the Minimum Wage: George W. won't even consider raising the federal minimum wage, but in November 2004, a whopping 71 percent of Florida's voters approved a referendum that raised the minimum wage above the miserly federal figure of $5.15 an hour. Nevada voters did the same. In New York, Rhode Island, Illinois and Vermont, the state legislatures have followed suit; fourteen states now have minimum wages that are higher than the federal government's.

2) Promoting Tax Fairness: In the November election, California voters approved by a three to one margin tax increases on those making more than $1 million a year--and earmarked the proceeds for mental health programs. In recent years, several states "both red and blue"--Nebraska and North Carolina among them--have adopted legislation "decoupling" state law from Bush's 2001 revisions to the tax code which ultimately "would prevent the total elimination of estate taxes in 2010," says the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA). Thirty states have rejected a depreciation provision written into the tax code by Republicans for their corporate allies in March 2002. Last year, the Virginia state legislature voted to raise taxes by $1.6 billion to provide more resources for education and other state programs, and in November Maine voters rejected a cap on property taxes.

3) Promoting Clean Elections: The Maine state legislature approved the Clean Election Act, which provides public financing to those candidates who refuse to use private donations or their own money to finance their campaigns. Well over 50 percent of Maine's legislators have run "clean money" campaigns. Voters in Arizona and Vermont have recently approved "clean money" ballot initiatives, and Arizona became the first state to elect a governor under the clean money system.

4) Protecting the Environment: In 2002, California enacted the nation's toughest law to limit car and truck emissions--thus reducing greenhouse gases, antagonizing the automobile industry and dealing a blow to SUVs and other gas-guzzling vehicles. In the past two years, six other states including Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey have adopted California's tough new emissions standards--spearheading the fight for clean air and reducing the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Other victories: In this past election, Colorado voted to promote renewable energy, and Washington State voted to ban nuclear waste dumping.

5) Promoting Stem Cell Research: More good news from the Golden State! In November, California voters rejected Bush's cynical policy on stem cell research when they approved, 59 to 41, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative. The law will raise $350 million to support stem cell research in the hopes of ultimately finding cures for Alzheimer's and other diseases. One San Diego scientist predicted that the law would establish in California a "mini-NIH" that will give a much-needed shot in the arm to stem cell research.

6) Reinstating Overtime Pay: In August, the Bush Administration prevented millions of Americans from collecting overtime pay when it approved regulations narrowing the list of those eligible. Illinois rejected this anti-worker policy, however, passing a law reinstating overtime pay for workers in the state. Twenty states have created overtime rules that are more expansive than the ones that the Bush Administration has adopted.

7) Providing Access to Emergency Contraception Pills: In 2003, two FDA committees advised the FDA to make emergency contraception pills available to women over the counter. The pills were declared safe and they were declared efficacious. But the FDA rejected its committees' recommendations, so Maine, California and Hawaii, among others, have passed rules making this option available to women who go to their neighborhood pharmacy. And New York and New Mexico require that rape victims in emergency rooms must be offered emergency contraception.

8) Outlawing Racial Profiling: Montana, New Jersey, Arkansas, Illinois and other states have banned racial profiling, fighting off John Ashcroft's efforts to target and detain Muslims simply, in many instances, because of who they are.

9) Financing Public Education:This past election, Nevada voted to require its legislators to fund K-12 education before anything else. Oklahoma created a lottery system to raise money for public education, and North Carolina chose to put money collected from fines into its public school system, as well as to require more equitable distribution of state money among the rich and poor school districts.

10) Protecting the Rights of Death Row Inmates: Georgia, Nevada, New Mexico and four other states have reformed their death penalty laws, giving those on death row the right to DNA testing. Illinois undertook a comprehensive re-examination of its death row system; after the Illinois Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment found widespread flaws and abuses, the Illinois state legislature adopted many of the eighty-five reforms that the Commission had recommended. In Wyoming and South Dakota, juvenile executions have been banned.

So, let's not hang our heads this Black Thursday but instead recognize that these are victories to build on in the next years. As Joel Rogers--director of The Center on Wisconsin Strategy, one of the savviest and most effective state policy groups around--wrote last year in these pages, progressives urgently need to develop and implement a more comprehensive and ambitious state strategy, building on the policy victories and organizing already underway.

Faced with four more years of Bush and DC gridlock,that's what I call a smart and winning agenda for a second term.

Crying Wolf

Social Security is in danger. We must take preventive action: Baathist dead-enders have targeted the Social Security lockbox with Saddam's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Our only hope is to adopt private accounts so the trust fund can be spread to multiple locations, before the smoking gun turns out to be a mushroom cloud.

Sound silly? No sillier than the Administration's full-court press to scare the retirement checks out of seniors' hands. A propaganda push so vile, it's a wonder Armstrong Williams isn't part of it. (But Dick Cheney is.)

Americans need to take a deep breath and repeat: There is no crisis in Social Security. There is no crisis in Social Security. Feel better? If absolutely no reforms are made, Social Security will not start running out of money until 2042! That's four decades away, and that is the pessimistic scenario. According to the optimistic projections, the danger of doing nothing is...nothing.

We've been down this road before, and we all know the result. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Babushkas Versus Putin

In February 1917, bread riots took place in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), and spread quickly to working-class quarters where the violence increased. Women, many of them elderly, led the protests that led to the collapse of the czarist regime and eventually to the Bolshevik revolution.

In January 2005, few anticipate genuine revolution--or even a change in government. But, in one of the most interesting developments in Russia since 1998, when disgruntled coal miners went on strike and blocked railway tracks in protest of unpaid wages, thousands of pensioners are demonstrating across the country--protesting the abolition of a wide range of social benefits. (Unlike 1998, however, what makes these protests potentially more powerful is that every family in Russia has a pensioner--often a beloved babushka caring for the grandchildren.)

The source of the pensioners' anger is a law that came into force on January 1, replacing longstanding social benefits--free public transportation, and subsidies for medicine, rent, utilities and other basic services--with inadequate, monthly cash payments. The new legislation affects the most vulnerable in Russia--the country's 34 million pensioners, veterans and people with disabilities. (They make up just over one quarter of the population.)

The spreading protests, which are the largest, angriest and most passionate since Putin came to power in 2000, began quietly on January 9 and now stretch from Russia's Far East to Moscow itself. Most important, at times they've brought vital transport arteries to a halt.

Last Monday, a crowd of elderly pensioners blocked the highway from Moscow's city center to one of its main international airports. The newspaper Russki Kurier reported, "The angered old people had to be dispersed with the help of the paramilitary forces." This past weekend, an estimated 10,000 pensioners and veterans jammed the streets in Putin's hometown of St Petersburg. In a sign of the radicalization of these pensioneer-protesters, many are now linking political demands to their calls that benefits be restored. Thousands in St. Petersburg shouted, "Putin--resign!" they also called for the regional governor's resignation. Pensioners have also staged protests in Khimki, outside Moscow, and in towns such as Samara, Ufa, Izhevsk, Tula, Penza, Kursk, Barnaul and Podolsk. In the main square of Almetyevsk last week, 5,000 people massed with placards, shouting slogans, "Down With Putin."

In Khimki, World War II veterans may face trial as a result of skirmishes during the protests.(In a sign of the government's hypocrisy, Putin used his televised New Year's greeting to the nation to mark the sixtieth anniversary of World War II this May, and honor its veterans--the very ones his "reforms" will now impoverish. As a 78-year old veteran told the New York Times, " The fascists took away my youth. And now these people are taking away my old age." )

There have also been outbreaks of violence. In Nizhnii Novgorod, two pensioners beat up a female trolley-bus conductor. According to Channel 3, dozens of trolley conductors across the country were assaulted last week. And the newspaper Moskovskii Komsomolets reported that, on January 11, a car trying to get through a cordon hit four elderly women during a demonstration in the Moscow suburb of Khimki.

Perhaps because large-scale protests in Moscow's center are difficult to hide, the usually tightly controlled Russian television has broadcast striking images of crowds of angry elderly women squaring off against policemen.

The conventional view is that these spontaneous and somewhat chaotic protests will not pose a serious challenge to the stability of Putin's regime--unless, through strategic leadership and ties to opposition parties, pensioners are able to mobilize and organize a nation-wide general strike.Yet, that view ignores the fact that few anticipated the ferocity of these protests. As late as a month ago, a respected Russian analyst argued that "the Russian masses, even the most destitute, have not sent any signal of their determination to confront the regime."

On the other hand, for months leading opposition commentators and politicians have talked about "the despair syndrome," suggesting that the situation in Russia is on the verge of an explosion. In December, rabid nationalist Alexander Prokhanov characterized the situation as "pre-revolutionary." Writing in Zavtra ("Tomorrow") , the newspaper he has edited for the last decade, Prokhanov declared that Putin's head will be "cut off," and asserted that everyone is against Putin in Russia, including "the humiliated governors, the oligarchs, his liberal intelligentsia, the nationalists, the West and the Russian people as a whole."

While Russia's newspapers are now filled with debates about the meaning of Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" for Russia, few believe that country will see a change in government. What is clear, however, is that the current political and economic crisis threatens Putin's personal standing. In a poll taken at the end of last week, 97 percent of people blamed Putin for the crisis. And a poll released Saturday shows that trust in Putin's leadership has plummeted. The wildfire demonstrations have also contributed to a decline in the public's mood about the country's direction.

The central question today is, Will pensioners be joined by younger protesters--students, unpaid school teachers, miners, doctors? Will there be a pensioners' general strike? Will demands escalate--as they already seem to be--and include widespread calls for the resignation of key ministers, the Parliament and Putin? If so, what will be the Kremlin's reaction? It's already clear that the regime--from the parliament to the ministries--is in a panic.

For now, however, the government is not backing down. Last week, the Putin -controlled parliament refused to approve a motion by the Communist and the Motherland parties to review and amend the benefits legislation.Instead, the Kremlin is blaming the regional authorities for poor implementation of the changes.

Several leading political opposition leaders are calling on the regime to use its budget surplus--or what is called the "stabilization fund"--of some $25 billion (largely a result of soaring oil prices) to increase pensions, restore benefits and subsidies and, more generally, develop a comprehensive economic development program. (Sergei Glaziev, a leading parliamentary deputy who challenged Putin in last year's presidential election, has also argued that these billions shouldn't be parked in Western banks, where the money does nothing for Russia's economy.)

What will the next days bring? A leading parliamentary deputy told a Moscow radio station last weekend, "The demonstrations will reach their peak in February when people will have to pay their utility bills for the very first time."

Babushkas of Russia--Unite!

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