The Tsars Come Out

A gloomy prognosis for Russian freedom.


At the morning sessions of the American Enterprise Institute's October 14 conference "Russia: Today, Tomorrow, and in 2008," the room of about 120 seats was filled almost to capacity. The speakers, pleasantly surprised, saw the turnout as a rebuke to the notion that Americans are suffering "Russia fatigue."

They may have been too optimistic: Judging from the conversations I heard during the lunch break, a good half of the audience was made up of Russians. Russia is certainly not on the front burner of American foreign policy concerns right now–a conference on the future of Iraq held at AEI a few days earlier was fully booked days in advance.

AEI President Christopher DeMuth opened the session by saying that Russia today is at a crossroads. He added that Russia is always at a crossroads. Some crossroads, of course, are more dangerous and more depressing than others. A decade ago, Russia seemed to be traveling a bumpy road toward a liberal society. Today, the general consensus is that it's slouching toward some variety of authoritarianism.

Perhaps the starkest assessment of the situation came from a speaker who wasn't there: Irina Khakamada, a member of the Russian Duma and the head of the liberal party Our Choice. She was scheduled to deliver the luncheon speech, but flu forced her to cancel at the last minute; instead, AEI distributed written copies of her talk, titled "Russia: Authoritarian Reality and Prospects for Democracy." It described the dominant political tendency in Russia today as "post-Soviet restoration," marked by the centralization of authority, the destruction of any meaningful political competition, a return to the role of the media as an instrument of the state, and a retreat from rapprochement with the West.

In Khakamada's view, Russia has already seen the restoration of a regime in which "the state means everything and civil society means nothing." Her forecast for 2008 was more gloom: most likely, another authoritarian leader to succeed Putin. She also warned that the next elections "will become the point of no return" after which "the regime could not be changed but only destroyed," and she pointedly reminded "Western democrats" that the collapse of democracy in Russia was unlikely to be preceded by the decay of its nuclear weapons.

Even without Khakamada's speech, the tenor of the conference leaned heavily toward pessimism–particularly during the morning session, which had three Russian speakers and dealt with Russia's domestic politics. That Russian democracy was being gutted did not seem to be in doubt. Several speakers cited the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the tycoon prosecuted for tax evasion after he had the temerity to offer a political challenge to Putin. The sociologist Yuri Levada mentioned Khodorkovsky's little-reported recent transfer from a Moscow prison to a Siberian labor camp; according to Levada, this was punishment for a sardonic birthday greeting to Putin the jailed businessman had published.

Levada stressed that the central feature of Russia's political life at the moment is the absence of opposition. Or rather, he stressed that Russia at the moment has no political life. "Politics, under Putin, has been replaced by administrative instruction," he said. "There are no political contests, no active political forces, and no political programs. Putin is not a politician; he is a chief administrative functionary." Levada's own career as Russia's first pollster illustrates the trajectory of the country's politics: His opinion research institute was allowed to open during Khruschev's thaw, shut down under Brezhnev, allowed to reopen under Gorbachev and glasnost, and finally taken over by the state under Putin. On the positive side, Levada was able to start a smaller research center on his own, which would have been unthinkable under the Soviet regime.

One looming question was whether Putin would stay for a third term after 2008, something that the Russian constitution expressly forbids and that Putin has repeatedly said he would not do. Nikolai Zlobin, a senior fellow at the D.C.-based Center for Defense Information who met with Putin in September 2005, said the president even gave him a written pledge not to run again–or, at least, his signature on Zlobin's notes recording Putin's promise.

Yet just as Putin has no opposition, he has no successor in sight, and it's widely assumed that the country's next leader will be handpicked by the Kremlin rather than emerging through the political process. Zlobin also noted that Putin's team, divided by bitter personal hostilities as well as different goals and ideologies, likely would fall apart in his absence.

Where, in all this, is the Russian public? The conference barely touched on the question; the only time it came up was in one of the handouts, an article by the political scientist Lilia Shevtsova (who also appeared on the morning panel) published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta in January 2005. In this article, Shevtsova draws on public opinion polls to show that the Russian people are far more prepared for a liberal democracy than they usually get credit for, and that the obstacle to democratic development comes not from the people but from the ruling elites.

Some of the findings Shevtsova cites are encouraging. Only about one in four Russians, for instance, are now prepared to sacrifice their own living standards for the sake of national greatness, and in one Levada Center poll only 12 percent said the state's interests take precedence over human rights. But in the same survey, only 44 percent said people "have the right to fight for their rights, even if this is contrary to the state's interest," and only 21 percent agreed that "the rights of the individual take precedence over the interests of the state."

Moreover, at times Shevtsova's interpretations seem much too optimistic. She mentions that in some polls "only 7 percent of respondents support all three basic principles of 'the Russian system'–priority of the state over the individual, a paternalist state, and Russia being closed off from the outside world," while 22 percent support two of these three principles. But she does not say how many support at least one.

Meanwhile, Shevtsova reports, "33 percent of the respondents supported all three principles of the modernizing alternative–priority of the individual, self-sufficiency, and openness for Russia–while 37 percent are prepared to support a modernization plan." She then sums up, "This indicates that 70 percent of Russian citizens are prepared to support a modernization breakthrough!" Yet without knowing what a "modernization" plan entails, it's hard to tell if this is an accurate measure of liberal values.

So what does the future hold? Levada expressed the conviction that Putin would find some pretext to stay in power in 2008, while Zlobin was of the opinion that Putin sincerely wants to leave office and will follow through on his promise; both men thought that either his third term or the succession was likely to precipitate a major crisis. All three panelists also agreed that a democratic breakthrough along the lines of Ukraine's "orange revolution" was highly unlikely because of the overall apathy of the population–at least as long as high oil prices continue to prop up Russia's relative economic stability.

During his talk, Zlobin noted that the resurgence of authoritarianism in Russia had also led to a resurgence of political humor. Fittingly, the question-and-answer period for the morning panel ended with a joke.

Answering a question about the future of democracy in Russia, Shevtsova said: "To add some optimism to my conclusions, I've got my favorite joke that, it seems to me, reflects the ambiguity of our democratic movement.

A sick man is picked up by an ambulance. He asks the doctor, 'Doctor, where are you taking me?' The doctor replies, 'To the morgue.' The man says, 'But I'm not dead yet!' The doctor says, 'But we're not there yet.'"

If this is Russian-style optimism, I'd hate to see what the pessimism looks like.?