By Mick Krever, CNN
A decidedly undiplomatic spat between Russia and the Netherlands is bringing to the forefront once again what Russian journalist Masha Gessen calls President Vladimir Putin’s “bully” syndrome.
Late Tuesday night, a senior Dutch diplomat in Russia, Onno Elderenbosch, was beaten in his apartment by two men posing as electricians.
Just days ago before that, Dutch police arrested a Russian diplomat in The Hague after neighbors reported suspected child abuse – police released him hours later and apologized to Moscow.
And all this comes on top of Russia’s arrest of 30 Greenpeace activists who, using a Dutch-flagged ship, were protesting oil and gas drilling in the Arctic. Earlier this month, Russia charged the 28 activists and two journalists on board with piracy, which carries a potential sentence of 15 years.
“This was a high-level diplomatic message of sorts,” Gessen told Amanpour from Moscow. “It’s not specific to the Dutch-Russian relationship, but it is specific to the way Russia is treating the rest of the world.”
President Vladimir Putin has run the country “like a thug” for 14 years, Gessen said, and is only now showing the world who he really is.
Putin began his third presidential term last year, after a brief interlude as prime minister.
“Russia is showing the rest of the world what it thinks of it,” Gessen told Amanpour. “The message to the world is basically we’re going to do whatever we want and there’s nothing you can do to us. It’s a bully’s message.”
Gessen, more than most, is personally affected by Putin style of governance. She is gay, and is planning to flee the country with her partner and children at the end of the year.
A law passed earlier this year in Russia bans "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations around minors."
But it is a another law, Gessen said, that is forcing her exit from her mother country.
In February, she told Amanpour, parliament will vote on a law that allows social services to remove children “from people who are known or believed to be homosexual.”
“That affects our three kids – one of whom is already in the States because he is adopted and most vulnerable – and the other two who are all in Moscow, and we’re all going to leave at the end of the year before they pass this law – and they will pass this law.”
Pressure on Russia over its stance on homosexuals is building not only because of these laws, but also because it is due to host the Winter Olympics, in Sochi, in a matter of months.
The pressure, Gessen said, “is forcing Russia to take an even more aggressive stand.” But, she added, “it doesn’t make the pressure wrong, to my mind.”
“If you think of it as dealing with a bully in the street or in a schoolyard, this is the kind of reaction you are going to get,” she told Amanpour. “Putin is acting like a cornered animal, or again like a bully who is being confronted. He’s lashing out; his government is doing more and more absurd things.”
While the assault on the Dutch diplomat and arrest of the Greenpeace activists is “outrageous,” she said, “it is part and parcel of the larger crackdown that’s been going on in Russia for at least the last year and a half, which is affecting anyone who is perceived as an outsider.”
“Hate sells everywhere,” Gessen said. “And hate sells particularly well in countries where there’s nothing else is on television, which is the situation that we’ve had in Russia for years.”
“Where,” Amanpour asked, “do you see the trend in terms of democracy, civil liberties, going in Russia?”
“I’m not even sure those words are applicable at this point,” Gessen said.
She surmised that Russia could offer some “grudging” kind of political compromise in the next few months, to ensure that the Olympics go off smoothly – for example, releasing some of the Greenpeace activists.
If you ask a corned bully for something, Gessen said, “he might throw the thing back at you and say, ‘Here, have it, I didn’t want it in the first place.’”
“That doesn’t stop his bullying. And that’s what’s happening in Russia. The crackdown will certainly continue; I think it will intensify after the Olympics.”