MOSCOW — What could be worse on one’s 50th birthday than to spend it in a gloomy fortress, sitting in the center of a heavily polluted city as president of a problem-ridden country struggling for survival? Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin looked perfectly happy on the day of his anniversary, and the only people who are upset by his Kremlin tenure are his liberal critics.

Putin does not seem to be dismayed by the appalling gap between the very rich and the very poor, pathetic living standards in the provincial towns and the countryside, and the everlasting war in Chechnya. He radiates calm and determination and seems content with his newly found role as father figure of the nation and gravedigger of Russian democracy.

The president spent his birthday in grand fashion. He went to the Commonwealth of Independent States summit, where presidents of other post-Soviet states congratulated him with varying degrees of sincerity. One of them gave Putin a crocodile. The gift was to symbolize aggressiveness, fierceness and wisdom. It is not completely clear why the sleazy reptile is considered endowed with wisdom; probably, in the post-Soviet mind-set, every beast that attacks is wise.

Another present was delivered by history. October 7 is not just Putin’s birthday; it is also the day when the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite into Earth’s orbit back in 1957. Given Putin’s obsession with everything military and imperial, history has chosen wise. The Russian president might have been upset had his anniversary coincided with, say, International Women’s Day or July 4.

Moscow loyalists knew they were running against history itself, so they had to choose their gift really carefully. So, after smart calculation, they presented the president with a splendid present, indeed: a legislative initiative that could potentially limit Russia to just two parties, Putin’s and the Communists. The suggested threshold of electorate votes necessary to entitle a political party to seats in Parliament — 12.5 percent — would make sure nobody else can join the Russian legislature.

The liberal Yabloko Party, as well as the maverick nationalistic Liberal-Democratic Party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, will find themselves dumped. As for the Communists, they make perfect opposition for they keep the babushkas happy but will never form a Cabinet of their own. If the legal initiative is approved and passed, Russia will be back to a one-party system in a way. And it looks as if this has been Putin’s ambition all along.

One of Putin’s predecessors, Joseph Stalin, once told Winston Churchill that only a one-party system fitted a real leader. Churchill disagreed — and lost the 1945 British parliamentary election. Putin is definitely smarter than that.

Having been propelled into his current high position by the manipulations of shady tycoons like Boris Berezovsky in the last months of President Boris Yeltsin’s senile rule, Putin has proved to possess iron will and an ingenious mind (so maybe he appreciated the crocodile).

Putin is infinitely more sophisticated than many other post-Soviet leaders such as the primitive embezzling president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma, or old-fashioned Oriental despots of Central Asia, or the undergrad fascist Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus.

Putin is no Plato, but, arguably, he is the best educated leader Russia has ever had after the founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin. Apparently, he thinks of himself as a savior of Mother Russia, re-endowing her with the sense of historical mission and grandeur, as he quietly but persistently uproots liberal rot.

In many ways, he is the worst choice Russian voters could have made in 2000: a determined opponent of diversity, be it freedom of speech or multiparty system, but also a clever manipulator believing in cloak-and-dagger, behind-the-scene deals and conspiracies. He doesn’t destroy Russian democracy; he undermines it like a skillful mole.

First came the assault on the free mass media, then on the financial oligarchs who could have founded a new opposition media. Now it looks like political diversity is under attack; back to the roots, back to uniformity, back to order — and maybe some law.

The international situation seems to promote Putin’s agenda. U.S. President George W. Bush is trying to launch a highly unpopular war against Iraq, causing a lot of grumbling in Europe and outright rage in the Muslim world. In this context, the Russian president’s word costs more than it actually should — and Putin is not the man to miss the chance to upgrade his international stature.

Bush chose not to congratulate the German chancellor for winning the national election, having not forgiven him for a number of anti-American remarks during the campaign, but he dutifully wished happy birthday to Putin.

Washington preferred to ignore Putin’s bullying of Georgia in the Caucasus and the creeping undermining of freedoms within Russia; it needs the Russian president’s support of its anti-Iraqi campaign.

Meanwhile, Putin faces a difficult dilemma: To side with Washington means angering domestic hardliners and losing face with a number of Middle Eastern regimes; opposing Washington jeopardizes his friendship with the American president and his (fully undeserved) image of a Westernizer.

The crocodile should have been sent to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who does remind one of a reptile as he lies in wait in the reeds looking for prey while actually having control over a very limited area, namely his own backwater.

Putin deserved a better gift. Snapping and swallowing doesn’t amount to much in politics. Those who manipulate and bargain do much better.

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