How to help Russia’s democrats?

Mary Dejevsky
11 March 2008

Russia's democracy activists are surely an unimpeachable cause, deserving all the moral and financial support they can get. They face all manner of obstacles.

Mary Dejevsky is a columnist and chief editorial writer for the Independent.

Also by Mary Dejevsky in openDemocracy:

"The west gets Putin wrong" (2 March 2005)

"Kyrgyzstan questions" (30 March 2005)

"Germany's travesty of democracy" (10 October 2005)

"Russia's NGO law: the wrong target" (15 December 2005)

"The new class society" (22 February 2006)

"Russia: what demographic crisis?" (27 September 2006)

"After Putin..." (21 September 2007)Western observers know, and not just from the parliamentary and presidential elections of December 2007 and March 2008, that for opposition politicians access to the establishment media is nigh impossible. As for street protests, forget it. If the likes of Mikhail Kasyanov or Garry Kasparov try to organise a march, the Kremlin ranges a completely disproportionate show of force against them. Outspoken Russian journalists have been murdered or otherwise silenced. And people in the west instinctively dislike Russia's restrictions on foreign NGOs (the country's NGO law of 2006 may have helped to make the British Council's operation in Russia vulnerable).

But there is another way of approaching this issue.

I have just spent ten days in Russia, covering the presidential elections. And after meeting people representing many strands of opinion in Moscow, St Petersburg and Voronezh, I just wonder whether we foreigners are really helping Russia by being so supportive of its democracy activists. To put it another way, I wonder whether the money and effort that goes into preaching our brand of democracy is very usefully spent.

This is not an attack on the generosity of George Soros, whose funds offer a durable, Carnegie-like contribution to all manner of ventures across what used to be the eastern bloc. What I observed on this visit, though, was a sort of dependency culture that we well-meaning non-Russian benefactors are largely responsible for creating.

Whenever I met people - courageous people - involved in activities critical of the regime from a western democratic perspective, sooner or later the conversation turned to pleas for publicity and/or money. They needed funds for another issue of their paper, to refurbish their buildings, to employ another assistant.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Russia politics and society:

Ivan Krastev, "'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style" (16 November 2006)

Oksana Chelysheva, "Russia's iceberg: a Nizhny Novgorod report" (25 April 2007)

Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: an appeal to Europe" (30 April 2007)

George Schöpflin, "Russia's reinvented empire" (2 May 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Russia's unequal struggle" (18 May 2007)

Armine Ishkanian, "Nashi: Russia's youth counter-movement" (30 August 2007)

Ivan Krastev, "Russia vs Europe: the sovereignty wars" (5 September 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Vladimir Putin for ever" (2 October 2007)

Anna Sevortian, "Russia: seeds of change" (20 November 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "The future is ours: Russia's youth activists in dialogue" (19 January 2008)

George Schöpflin, "The new Russia: a model state" (26 February 2008)

Nicolai N Petro, "The Medvedev moment" (28 February 2008)

Andrew Wilson, "Russia's post-election balance" (3 March 2008)

Rebecca Kay, "'Being a man' in contemporary Russia" (10 March 2008) It was hard to explain that in making such requests they were not doing themselves any favours, beyond what the money would buy. Indeed, by soliciting western funds, they were exposing themselves to the charge - at best - of being unpatriotic, and - at worst - of being in the pay of a foreign government. Some clearly knew this, but felt the risk worth taking, because it was in the higher cause of bringing democracy in Russia.

Between here and there

I am not convinced they are right. My misgivings surfaced first in the provincial city of Voronezh, where I met a local opposition activist whose group published a newspaper as and when. That we met was at my instigation. That we met in the coffee bar right in the reception of the city's main hotel, was at his suggestion. Notwithstanding that such a meeting would have been extreme folly until the 1990s, he regaled me with a lurid account of how Russia was on a fast track back to Brezhnevism.

Now, I am sure his complaints of being harassed were absolutely true. But he has a job; he agreed to meet me in full view of whatever cameras the authorities have at their disposal, and handed over copies of his pre-election issue in broad daylight. This, surely, is not Brezhnevism, or even Andropovism or Chernenkoism. In those years, meeting a foreigner like this would have meant the sack, a charge of anti-Soviet activity before a politicised court, and a closed carriage to the gulag.

What struck me more than the contrast between then and now, however, was that when I had exhausted my questions about opposition activity, he said he had something to say to me. Fair's fair; I was happy to listen, but less happy with what I heard - which was essentially a plea for foreign money and foreign trips. Why was it that only businesspeople were able to travel to the west? A more productive course, my Voronezh interlocutor implied, would be for western groups or governments to invite Russian professionals: doctors to see how a free health service worked, teachers to see foreign schools, cultural figures.

I would not entirely dissent from that. The opportunity for Russian professionals - the new middle class, after all, in whom the west has invested such hopes - to see how other systems work would be a useful exercise for both sides. The idea that western countries should do more to fund Russia's democracy campaign groups and literature, however, I am less sure about. It is not just that the recipients will necessarily be regarded as a fifth column in their own country. It is more that, if a higher quality of democracy is to take root in Russia and other countries, it is not us, but their compatriots they have to convince.

At the grassroots

Both this meeting, and similar ones in St Petersburg evoked memories of reading Turgenev novels as an undergraduate, and the recurrent complaints of Russia's 19th-century westernisers about their country's backwardness. The more idealistic or committed went off into the Russian provinces to preach their message, then despaired of making conversions. Others went abroad to learn how western democracy was done, in the hope of implanting it back home. This was not successful either. Or rather, if it was, the result was the Bolshevik revolution!

The lesson, however, may be the same. If today's Russian westernisers want Russia to be a recognisable democracy, then they will have to learn to talk to their own people in a language they understand and take part in their own domestic politics. This is what happened in the late 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev opened up political discussion and former dissidents, including Andrei Sakharov and Dmitri Likhachev, joined the new political centre. Under Vladimir Putin, however - perhaps through his fault, but perhaps also through ours - the intellectual elite has once again turned to sip the nectar of the western gods.

This is not good for them and it is certainly not good for Russia. Some of the country's brightest and best are lavishing their time on potential western benefactors, when they might be better employing their persuasive skills on their fellow-citizens. It is not the west, but Russia's grassroots that need to be convinced about the merits of more democracy.

But if the country's pro-democracy activists still cannot make converts, they will have to draw the same conclusion as their 19th-century counterparts. Russia is not ready for, or not amenable to, their message. They will need to forge new links with the Russian people and polity, and learn a new language of campaigning.

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