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Israel's foreign minister may not be much of a diplomat, but he is an instinctively political animal who knows his constituency and what they want to hear. Or at least it seemed that way until last week. Avigdor Lieberman chose what now seems the worst possible moment - when tens of thousands of demonstrators were taking to the streets of Moscow - to meet Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the full glare of the television cameras and praise Russia's parliamentary elections as "free, fair and democratic."

This time he may have misread his audience. It wasn't just the Hebrew press, but also the Russian-language media, normally sycophantic to Lieberman and his cohorts, which roundly condemned his endorsement of the fraudulent elections.

He quickly realized his miscalculation and uncharacteristically backpedalled slightly in a briefing to reporters on Monday, when he admitted that there had been some irregularities in the ballots, but insisted that "Russia is not a Western democracy" and "cannot jump four steps in one go." In an effort to curb enthusiasm for the demonstrations, he labeled Putin's opponents "Communists" and "no friends of ours."

No one knows Israel's Russian-speaking community better than Lieberman. His enduring political success is testimony to his aptitude at translating the concerns and aspirations of over a million Israelis who were born and raised behind the Iron Curtain into votes.

In the second half of the 1990s, two "Russian" parties were founded in Israel. The first, Yisrael b'Aliyah, was led by Natan Sharansky and others who had been involved in the struggle for human rights and emigration from the Soviet Union. The second was Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu.

At first, Sharansky's party was much more popular at the polls: Lieberman had to merge his list with the far-right National Union's to avoid being totally marginalized. But he was patient, and in 2006 - after Yisrael b'Aliyah declined, was subsumed within Likud and finally disbanded - he struck out again as an independent party. That year, Yisrael Beiteinu garnered 11 Knesset seats, a tally since increased to 15.

Looking back to Yisrael b'Aliyah's first election campaign in 1996, it seems incredible to outsiders that its political fortunes were so short-lived. Sharansky was an international hero and symbol, Russian Jewry's Nelson Mandela. At that time, Lieberman, Benjamin Netanyahu's shadowy aide, was almost anonymous, though rapidly gaining a reputation for underhand political dealing.

But in the electoral prizefight, it was Lieberman who ultimately won twice over: He not only gained more votes on the Russian street, but no less crucially, succeeded in attracting a significant proportion of "native" Israeli voters.

What Lieberman knew

Lieberman understood two things: First, with Likud under both Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon in a prolonged identity crisis between its centrist-liberal and right-wing tendencies, there was room for a resolutely secular nationalist party. And second, that this would be the political flavor most appealing to the great majority of Russian immigrants.

Only a very small minority of these immigrants were involved in Zionist and human rights campaigns. Most were ordinary Russians who came to Israel for a higher quality of life. Just as former KGB officer Putin emerged from the chaos of post-Soviet Russia and won over his countrymen with a new/old brand of Russian patriotism and the image of strong leadership, Lieberman built his appeal on very similar foundations.

If the political saga had turned out differently, can anyone imagine Foreign Minister Sharansky, no less a right-winger but above all a staunch democrat, issuing his stamp of approval to the neo-authoritarian Putin regime? But Lieberman has wagered his political career on the presumption that his voters are not that crazy about democracy.

For much of the last decade, the question Moscow-watchers have been trying to answer is whether democracy is actually good for the Russians. Surveys conducted there certainly show that a clear majority prefers a strong leader who can deliver stability and financial security over a democratic government and political freedom. And who is anyone in the West to tell them they must adhere to liberal values when they have faced widespread poverty, food shortages and Chechen terror?

For the last year, similar questions have been asked about the Arab world. With the old dictators being toppled and their absence so far leading mainly to chaos and the success of Islamist parties in free elections, even democracy's most valiant defenders have to ask whether it really is the best thing for everyone.

And the recent slew of bills going through the Knesset aimed at limiting foreign funding for human rights organizations, muzzling the press and reining in the Supreme Court give rise to the question of whether democracy is good for Israelis and Jews.

Reading some of the coverage from Russia this week, I noticed something that has become a recurring theme over the last year. In an attempt to discredit the various organizations that monitored the elections and revealed widespread fraud at polling stations across the vast country, officials have accused "foreign-funded NGOs" of trying to undermine the Russian nation. This is the exact same rhetoric being used by Yisrael Beiteinu politicians, and also some Likud MKs, to justify the NGO funding bill in the Knesset. Embattled Arab leaders have also spent the last year accusing foreign powers - the U.S. State Department, Israel's Mossad and the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network - of fomenting the uprisings in their countries.

Do Putin, Lieberman and Bashar Assad really believe that insidious foreigners are plotting to bring them down? Certainly there is a combination of paranoia, populism and opportunism at work here. But according to Haaretz's Yossi Verter, Yisrael Beiteinu truly fears losing at least part of its constituency.

In an excellent political analysis last Friday, he quoted Lieberman and his chief lieutenant, Faina Kirshenbaum, accusing the Geneva Initiative - which is indeed funded by European governments - of working among Israeli Russians, in their native language, to convince them of the necessity of a two-state solution. That is their main concern, not groups like B'Tselem or Yesh Din that have had little influence on the Israeli public.

Their protestations against foreign money trying to sway Israeli public opinion are disingenuous but indicative. For the past decade, Lieberman has relied on a captive Russian media that barely challenged his positions. The Geneva Initiative has been around for years, but only now that it is actively targeting Russian speakers does he seem to be really bothered by its campaign.

Assad and Hosni Mubarak both shut down Internet and mobile phone networks. Putin closed television stations that dared to air opposition views. And Lieberman is trying to prevent subversive views from circulating among his voters. The fears are the same. Putin and Lieberman are ideological twins, and both are now feeling the same heat.