Inside the looking glass: a reply to Nicolai N Petro

Mischa Gabowitsch
17 February 2006

If the debate about Russia on openDemocracy continues in the same vein, the stock of Lewis Carroll terminology will soon be exhausted. Artemy Troitsky aptly described Putin's Russia as "Alice-in-wonderland", and now Nicolai N Petro, has gone "through the looking-glass" to challenge what he calls an inaccurate view of democracy in that wondrous country.

Upon closer inspection, the "reality-checks" he has brought back turn out to be so many Potemkin villages. Let us have a closer look at the four main topics Petro addresses: the media, the legal system, Chechnya, and NGOs and civil society.

Mischa Gabowitsch is responding to the openDemocracy article by Nicolai N Petro, "Russia through the looking-glass"
(February 2006)

The media: a diversity of censorship

Imagine an ecosystem where one omnivorous and many-headed monster has eaten all other predators and grown to occupy most of the feeding-grounds, leaving all sorts of little and tiny creatures to thrive and multiply as long as they're too small to arouse the monster's appetite, or if they enter a symbiosis with the monster, facilitating its digestive process. That gives you an idea of the diversity of the Russian media landscape.

The monster is state-owned or state-controlled television, the only nationwide medium: while only about half of Russian households have a telephone line at home, well over 90% have access to the First Channel and Rossiya. And for a vast majority of Russians, they are virtually the only source of information about political events. Given that typically well over half of their news broadcasts consist of sympathetic coverage of Vladimir Putin and members of the United Russia party, and oppositional figures are always presented in a negative or ironic light (if at all), it is unsurprising that the president is enjoying considerable popularity.

While not all major newspapers are directly controlled by the presidential administration, the government, or state-owned companies, the owners and/or chief editors of most of the others are exercising various forms of censorship, since overstepping a certain line may spell financial ruin, or worse, at the hands of the powers-that-be: witness the farcical sentence against Stanislav Dmitrievsky, editor of a small-circulation human-rights newspaper, for publishing an interview with Aslan Maskhadov.

But central newspapers have a very limited circulation outside Moscow and St Petersburg anyway, and most of the regional papers or TV stations are insipid and hopelessly unprofessional, if not directly controlled by regional governors. The privately-owned media that are making any profits are exclusively entertainment channels, glossy magazines and the like; and none of their profits are invested into the kind of critical media that western foundations are likely to fund. The internet is the only nationwide space where free political debate is – still – tolerated, but even among under-35-year-olds, fewer than 5% use the internet as a source of information about politics. Thus the purported diversification of Russian media is a red herring as far as democracy is concerned.

The legal system: political justice

The problem with the Russian legal system is not that there are no liberal laws. The problem is that laws are bent or ignored whenever the interests of the political elite are involved. The constitutional court, which Nicolai N Petro calls "independent", has failed to overturn Putin's abolition of gubernatorial elections which blatantly conflicts with both the constitution and a previous ruling by that very same court. It has also turned down another case brought against unashamed violations of the electoral campaign law in the run-up to the December 2003 Duma elections.

One of the reasons why the judicial system has become more busy in recent years is that the courts have now replaced submachine guns as instruments in power struggles at all levels. To provide an example (described by Vladimir Volkov in a recent article in Neprikosnovenny Zapas (NZ): the highly liberal bankruptcy law passed in 1998 has mainly been used for hostile takeovers of corporate property initiated by business groups that have "administrative resources" at their disposal. Of course the same method can be used in conflicts between rival bureaucratic groups. Thus the increase in judicial activity, though promising in itself, is another Potemkin village as long as the judiciary is not independent of the executive.

Chechnya: expanding violence

Far from having brought peace and stability to Chechnya, the Kremlin has erected a thin façade to mask the fact that the republic has effectively become a fief tenanted by ruthless local (former?) warlords. What little progress has been made in terms of curbing kidnappings or reintegrating refugees was due to pressure from human-rights groups, which in turn would hardly have been possible without western attention to human-rights issues in Chechnya.

Putin's main achievement, on the other hand, has been to spread violence and chaos even to those north-Caucasian republics that used to enjoy a fragile and imperfect stability (Dagestan and Ingushetia) or even relative calm (Kabardino-Balkaria), usually by ousting elected governors and replacing them with Kremlin puppets who are out of touch with the local population: both the tragedy of Beslan and the hostage crisis in Nalchik could have been avoided if the regional leaders had not alienated their people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Independent reporting in and about Chechnya is still virtually impossible, and local correspondents of Moscow-based or western human-rights groups are continuing to face considerable pressure and hostility from Kremlin envoys, so the Chechen government's boastful claims that Petro quotes are impossible to verify.

NGOs and civil society: a Procrustean framework

The abolition of governors' elections and their attempts to tamper with elections in both Russia and the "near abroad" betray the Putin administration's total contempt for democratic procedure and indeed any kind of popular sovereignty. Similarly, their treatment of NGOs shows an utter lack of understanding of the basics of civil society.

It is simply untrue that the intentionally vague words about foreign threats to Russian sovereignty that were included into the recent NGO bill were a response to the western outcry. Stalinist rhetoric denouncing NGOs, especially those involved in Chechnya or demanding a fair trial for the likes of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, as "enemies of the people" and a "fifth column" of the hostile west has been part of the Kremlin's arsenal for quite some time now. The ludicrous recent "British spy scandal" is just another example of an orchestrated hysteria aimed at preparing public opinion for an imminent clampdown on NGOs.

After many of the large western foundations left Russia in the early Putin years, some Russian organisations did step in, although funds provided to NGOs are subject to burdensome taxation – but the most generous and efficient of them, Open Russia, was funded by Khodorkovsky, and has consequently been all but shut down by the Kremlin.

The presidential administration is busy creating sham political movements (such as Nashi [Our People]) and eyewash civil-society bodies (such as the appointed Public Chamber) to create a semblance of pro-Kremlin civic activity. This is a kind of "partnership" that comes at the cost of silencing alternative voices and restricting debate to officially-sanctioned topics.

Also in openDemocracy on Vladimir Putin's Russia:

Mary Dejevsky, "The west gets Putin wrong" (March 2005)

Artemi Troitsky, "Alice-in-Wonderland Russia" (March 2005)

Ivan Krastev, "Russia's post-orange empire" (October 2005)

Mary Dejevsky, "Russia's NGO law: the wrong target" (December 2005)

Nicolai N Petro, "Russia through the looking-glass"
(February 2006)

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A problem of implementation?

The media barons who controlled many of the "independent channels" in the 1990s were not disinterested defenders of free speech. The legal system under Boris Yeltsin was not just inefficient, it was also dreadfully corrupt; the Chechen terrorists who take hostages and blow up buildings across Russia are monsters; and NGO activists are sometimes naïve, sometimes mistaken, and sometimes out of touch with "ordinary people".

All of this is obvious, just as there is no doubt that most Russians look back upon the 1990s as a time of chaos and insecurity: to many, "democracy" has been discredited by the way it was handled by the "democrats". That is indeed one of the reasons – though not the only one – why many are still prepared to support Putin. Westerners' (and some Russians') view of Yeltsin as a champion of democracy for its own sake is almost as misguided as some Russians' (and certain westerners') view of Putin as a wise and perhaps even "democratic" leader.

However, referring to the predicament that democratic institutions in Russia are facing "many problems of implementation" (as Petro does) is like blaming the dire state of the British railway system on a few sloppy train-drivers. The railroad infrastructure may have been imperfect or, worse, unsustainable, before it was privatised, and abolishing railroad travel altogether certainly won't do. But jailing a few hundred railroad workers and outlawing timetables won't make trains run on schedule. Few Russians want to abolish the state; what people want is for the state to serve them, not those in power.

Vladimir Putin is not a fascist, and it would be disastrously wrong to blame all of Russia's problems on him and his administration. They probably earnestly believe they are working for the good of the country – mainly because they are unable to distinguish between themselves and Russia. And many people remain convinced that Putin is steering the right course, although few would refer to it as "democratic". However, more and more groups – soldiers' mothers, pensioners, students, and others – are seeing their rights being trampled upon, and are consequently becoming alienated from the state. The oil bubble is still growing, but once it bursts or even begins to deflate, people will start asking difficult questions.

While it is important that western governments and foundations support human-rights groups and other civil-society initiatives even more than they have done in the past, they must realise that no amount of direct foreign involvement is likely to produce large-scale grassroots support for democratic change – that is something that must evolve from within.

Meanwhile, the west can do two things: first, refuse to slam the door in the face of Russian civil society by taking everything the Kremlin's spin-doctors are saying at face value; second, set an example. What Russian democracy needs is higher ground, not the common ground of Grozny and Guantánamo.

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