Russian Democracy Under Fire


Ever since Russia embarked on a course of dizzying change in the late 1980s, embracing a new openness to the world and new freedoms for its people, the pessimists—or realists?—among us have been on the alert for signs of backsliding.

In the past year, there have been some big (pardon the pun) red flags, from fairly blatant assaults on freedom of the press to the recent decision to bring back the old Soviet anthem. When Vladimir Putin rose to power a year ago, many in Russia and in the West wondered uneasily if the new president's past career as an officer in the KGB, the dreaded Soviet secret police, was reason enough to fear for the civil liberties won under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.

Putin has done little to allay these concerns. His tenure has been marked by harassment of the independent media. Russia's only privately owned television station, NTV—which has often been harshly critical of the government—is in danger of being shut down or brought to heel through a combination of criminal prosecution for alleged fraud and tax violations, and financial pressures to repay loans.

The revival of the old anthem, which dates back to the Stalin era, is a symbolic move but nonetheless an alarming one. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians were encouraged to see their new democracy as a rejection of the old regime. Yeltsin may have been a Communist functionary, but he had gained fame when, ousted from his party post, he broke with the bosses and joined the opposition bloc in the Soviet parliament; his allies included the great human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, a name synonymous with the dissidents' battle against the Soviet state.

Russia's democrats of the early 1990s rightly saw the Soviet regime much the same way that America's cold warriors did: as an evil empire whose legacy had to be repudiated much like postwar Germany had repudiated its Nazi past.

What a difference a decade makes. The comeback of the anthem is one of many ways in which the Putin regime underscores the continuity between the new Russia and the old USSR. The red banner, minus hammer and sickle, is back as Russia's military flag. The official literature of the federal security service openly treats the Soviet-era secret police as a respectable redecessor.

Indeed, Putin has unabashedly referred to himself as a former Chekist—a word for secret police agent (derived from the Cheka, the instrument of terror created by the Soviet regime in 1917) that, to pro-democracy Russians, has the same overtones as Gestapo man.

Ten years ago, Russia was eager to join the international community of democracies. Today, anti-Western sentiments are in vogue again. In the loyalist press, opposition leaders and activists who have criticized Russia's policies, especially the brutal war in Chechnya, are attacked as dupes or paid lackeys of Western powers. This is not to say that Russia's new rulers want to revert completely to the old ways. Putin dutifully pays lip service to civil liberties, even telling his former KGB colleagues at a banquet the other day that their new task is to protect the constitutional rights of Russia's citizens.

He understands the need for good relations with the West, even as he seeks to renew ties with old Soviet allies such as Cuba and North Korea. Nor does he seek to abolish private business. Russian journalist Evgenia Albats writes that Putin's ideology is extreme statism pragmatically married to a market economy. (That's called fascism.) The Soviet legacy Putin and his supporters seek to reclaim is not socialism but a powerful state. Right now, Putin enjoys a high level of popularity. If Russians may be turning their backs on democracy, it may be less because they don't care about freedom than because the democratic experiment in Russia was largely a farce, with crime and corruption spreading unchecked and the rule of law nonexistent.

The legacy of the new democratic Russia is not yet lost. Leading newspapers such as the daily Izvestia do not mince words in criticizing Putin's authoritarian moves. In two cases, courts have refused to convict environmental whistle-blowers on charges trumped up by the newly emboldened state security services. But Russia's civil society is likely to face new and difficult tests. It remains to be seen whether multitudes of Russians want a strong state that will protect their fundamental rights, or are willing to submit once again to a state that will trample those rights.