The Washington Post Column

Russia’s Dying Democracy

You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but Vladimir Ryzhkov is one of the great hopes for democracy in Russia. With the air of a slightly shaggy, overgrown student, Ryzhkov isn’t your classic baby-kissing politician. For Russia he is young (he served as deputy speaker of the Russian parliament at the tender age of 33) and overly intellectual, with a weighty book of political theory behind him. Nevertheless, a couple of hours with him—I had lunch with him in Moscow last week—reveals three qualities that almost no other national elected politician can claim.

One, he speaks in straight sentences, eschewing the habit of Soviet long-windedness. Two, he is actually willing to publicly disagree with President Vladimir Putin, a sin for which he got kicked out of Unity, Putin’s political party, and became an “independent.” Three, he is also willing to publicly disagree with the other Russian politicians who call themselves “liberals,” meaning economic liberals, in a vaguely pro-Western sense. “Five years ago, Russian liberals used to speak of democratic Poland as a model of economic reform,” he points out. “Now they speak of Chile—under Pinochet—and Singapore and even China.”
Indeed, while Russia is still awash in would-be economic reformers, and while much of the Western press and commentariat continue to laud their efforts, the number of politicians who actually advocate democracy, and who actually oppose the president’s efforts to centralize power in his own hands, are shrinking daily. Of course it is true (for those who haven’t followed the story up until now) that Putin’s actual political opponents—as opposed to the handful of media groups or business interests that has continued to criticize him—in fact started melting away of their own volition some time ago, back when his popularity began to rise in the wake of the mysterious series of bombing attacks in Moscow (still never properly explained) and the initially successful relaunch of the Chechen war. Those events led to the surprise success of Unity—the political party/cheerleading squad put together by Putin in a few weeks before last December’s parliamentary elections. They also led to the surprise collapse of Fatherland, the party (also not especially keen on the rule of the people, by the people) composed of regional bosses and led by Yuri Luzhkov, mayor of Moscow, which had appeared at least to have a shot at power.

More to the point, it was round about that time that the Union of Right Forces—a party whose name sounds awful in English but is usually characterized as pro-liberal economics, pro-democratic, and pro-West—jumped on the Putin bandwagon as well. Among other things, its leaders refused to join Grigory Yavlinsky, one of the few politicians who dared to challenge Putin for the presidency, in criticizing the Chechen war. “You can understand it,” one Yavlinsky supporter told me at the time. “Every time he utters a word of opposition to the war, Yavlinksy’s support figures drop another few percentage points.” Neither strategy helped either group very much in the end: Yavlinsky’s party, Yabloko, wound up with 16 parliamentary deputies and the Union of Right Forces wound up with 24—out of a total of 450. Yavlinsky barely scraped together a few percentage points in the presidential campaign.

Since Putin’s election, not only have these few “democrats” abandoned the notion of criticizing the president, but the entire potential opposition appears to have rolled over and played dead altogether, thanks both to Putin’s skill in buying them off with various gifts and appointments (much, it has to be said, as Tony Blair tried to neutralize the Tories by appointing them to royal commissions) and their own cravenness. Over the past few months, he has named former Prime Minister Sergei Kiryenko, a leader of the Union of Right Forces, as one of seven new governor-generals, to be installed around the country to help destroy the power of local governors. He also formed a parliamentary coalition between his party, Unity, and the former Communist Party, naming a Communist leader as parliamentary speaker. He also appears to hold the loyalty of Anatoly Chubais, another leading “liberal” and rumored to be the main source of funding for the Union, perhaps because he’s in control of the state electricity monopoly. Boris Nemtsov, leader of the Union, has for the most part continued to support Putin—he has certainly spent much time trying to soothe relations between the president and the business oligarchs—perhaps to ensure that the electricity monopoly’s money keeps flowing in his direction.

None of which appears to have had any effect whatsoever. One Russian newspaper reported this week (click here for an English summary of Putin’s plans for further constitutional changes in the autumn) that among other things, it is alleged, the number of parliamentary deputies will be reduced and the rules changed to make way for a two-party system. The two parties will be Putin’s Unity and the Communists. There will be, in other words, no “democrats” left at all.

What isn’t clear is why this has to happen; why Putin wants it to happen, that is. Perhaps the “Chinese model” or the “Chilean model” of economic reform—capitalism without democracy—might have made sense back in 1987, when the Communist Party was still intact and there was nothing else. But if there was any silver lining to the chaos and corruption of the Yeltsin years, it was that at least something resembling a free press together with what was starting to look like democratic political parties remained in their wake. Now, although some elements of informal civil society are still intact (click here for some praise of them), the press is less and less free and the democratic politicians are vanishing fast. Why destroy them? Couldn’t economic reform have been carried out within the framework of democracy?

Clearly, Putin thinks not. And the dangers are clear. While some in the West will applaud any attempt to force through some economic reform, Putin’s elimination of his potential opponents leaves open not only the possibility of a relatively benign, even “progressive” dictatorship, but for far less benign future dictatorships led, perhaps, by Putin’s assassin, or by his bodyguard, or whoever. When the palace coup happens, nobody will be around to object.