Is Russia Democratic?

by , December 04, 2007

Russians cast their votes in parliamentary elections on Sunday, with an overwhelming victory widely expected for Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party – and yet we already knew what we were supposed to think of the whole process, with Western governments and media outlets (or do I repeat myself?) having already decided the whole thing was a farce well before a single vote was cast.

How did they know this?

Well, because Putin is supposedly the reincarnation of Joseph Stalin – in spite of the fact that he hasn’t jailed a single person on account of their political opinions, and the Russian gulag has long since disappeared into history. Yet the accusations against Putin have grown louder, even as Russia grows more prosperous and ordinary Russians are more supportive of their president – and therein lies a tale.

Not since the run-up to war with Iraq has Western media coverage of a country been so completely and unreasonably one-sided: take, for example, this CBS News report. It features an interview with one Robert Amsterdam, described as "an expert on Russian politics," who gives his view that the election is just a pro forma exercise in which the outcome is predetermined. What they somehow neglect to tell you is that Amsterdam, far from being a disinterested "expert," is in reality a partisan of the jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky – he’s Khodorkovsky’s lawyer. Amsterdam has spent much of the past few years making the case for his client, who is up on charges of embezzlement, fraud, and murder, and whose vast holdings were essentially a gift from the notoriously corrupt regime of Boris Yeltsin, the perpetually drunk Russian leader who died in 2006. The crux of Khodorkovsky’s case against his prosecutors is that they represent an authoritarian state out to get him, and, in the process, re-Sovietize Russian political life as well as the economy. I won’t waste any more words on the infamous oligarch, whose fortune is the result of crony capitalism at its worst rather than laissez-faire, and whose career is best characterized as a cross between Tony Soprano and Wesley Mouch. You can read all about it here.

Amsterdam is an "expert," all right – at obfuscating the facts. He decries a change in the election rules requiring parties represented in parliament to get 7 percent of the vote, up from 5 percent. Yet the Russian system is far more democratic than, say, the American system, where a party that gets 7 percent – or even 10 or 20 percent – is by no means guaranteed a single seat in Congress. That is, if they even manage to get on the ballot. Parties other than the state-sanctioned and state-subsidized Democrats and Republicans face almost impossible hurdles to achieve ballot status – and, even if they do, these "third" parties operate at a tremendous disadvantage not only legally, but in terms of being taken seriously by the "mainstream" media. Is this any better than in Russia? One could make a convincing case that it is far worse.

The CBS report shows footage of an opposition demonstration supposedly being "broken up" by the Russian cops. What our intrepid reporters fail to mention, however, is that the demonstrators were given a permit to hold a rally, but instead insisted on marching through the streets – a course that, in, say, security-conscious Washington, D.C., would earn them a few nightstick blows on the head and at least one day in jail. A breakaway march was led by members of the neo-fascist National Bolshevik Party (NBP), whose crazed leader, Eduard Limonov, addressed the crowd alongside more "respectable" opposition figures such as chess champion Gary Kasparov. Both were arrested when they followed the violence-prone NBP on a mad run through the streets. Kasparov is lionized in the West, yet in Russia he is considered a marginal figure, partially on account of his association with the "Other Russia" grouping, which is essentially controlled by the lunatic NBP.

The reality is that Putin is wildly popular, which Amsterdam is forced to admit even as he spins this against the contention of an alleged "crackdown" on the opposition by claiming that the election is all about "legitimacy." Putin, it seems, is determined to cement his unchallenged authority by racking up a huge majority. According to Deutsche Welle, the plan is for Putin – constitutionally constrained against running for a third term as president – to reappear in some other office, where he will run the show from behind the scenes.

The Western powers – who hate and revile the revival of Russia’s fortunes – are determined to delegitimize not only Putin, but the Putin-era prosperity and stability that is the source of the Russian president’s enormous popularity. Under the Yeltsin regime, the oligarchs were free to loot and otherwise abuse the Russian economy, with former Communists who used their political connections to amass obscene wealth draining the nation’s lifeblood like a flock of vampires on the hunt. The jailbird Khodorkovsky is one, and another is the infamous Boris Berezovsky, who has declared his intention to overthrow the Russian government – by force if necessary – and who is financing much of the opposition, both in country and in exile.

Berezovsky – wanted in Russia on charges of theft, extortion, and murder – was the patron of Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB agent turned anti-Putin activist supposedly poisoned by the Russian secret service using an exotic and scary radioactive substance. This case caused a sensation in Britain, where Litvinenko succumbed, yet questions remain about the real cause of his death. I’ve covered it in this space, in depth, here, here, here, and here. Suffice to say that the semi-official story – Litvinenko was killed by the neo-Stalinists in the Kremlin, much like Trotsky was found with an icepick in his head – is in considerable doubt, as evidence emerges that he may have been part of a smuggling ring that secreted radioactive polonium into Britain.

Now more evidence that the mainstream media narrative of Litvinenko-the-martyr is very far from the truth is coming out, with Britain’s Daily Mail revealing for the first time what everyone in Russia has been saying since the case broke:

"The former Russian spy poisoned in a London hotel was an MI6 agent, the Daily Mail can reveal. Alexander Litvinenko was receiving a retainer of around £2,000 a month from the British security services at the time he was murdered."

Citing "diplomatic and intelligence sources," the paper goes on to aver that this was the real reason for Litvinenko’s alleged assassination. By leaking what we all knew to be true in any event, the spooks behind the departed spy have managed to divert attention away from the more likely death-by-self-contamination scenario – in which the polonium poisoning is due to a botched smuggling operation – and back in the direction of a plot directed or implicitly sanctioned by Putin. Very slick – as the entire anti-Putin propaganda campaign has been from the beginning.

The real purpose behind the anti-Putin campaign – which, at its most frenetic, is designed to convince us that the Russians are coming once again, posing the dire prospect of a reborn Soviet threat – is to topple a leader who challenges American hegemony in the world. The Russian president won’t go along with the American plan to "transform" the Middle East into a "democratic" pile of rubble, nor will he countenance "regime change" on his periphery, helped along by generous dollops of U.S. tax dollars and the enmity of George Soros. If Kosovo is to be independent, he avers, well then, why not Abkhazia, or Ossetia, or any of the other Russia-friendly breakaway republics with close ties to the Motherland?

Putin is no saint, but neither is he the devil depicted in the Western media, which regularly presents such representatives of the exiled Russian oligarchs as Mr. Amsterdam and Boris Berezovsky as credible critics and misses no opportunity to portray Putin as a "dictator."

The Russian media is neither state-owned nor is it more concentrated in terms of ownership than our own: it is about as friendly to the opposition as America’s mainstream media is to, say, Ron Paul. Opposition parties, including the Communist Party of Russia, exist and are free to organize, stand for election, publish materials, and conduct campaigns, including the distribution of propaganda. What they are not allowed to do any longer is accept subsidies from foreign governments and other overseas entities, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, USAID (a U.S.-government-funded propaganda agency), and any one of a number of Berezovsky-supported-and-funded front groups, including Western-based "support groups" for Chechen terrorists.

This "restriction" on foreign funding – which is also the law in the U.S. – has the U.S.-government-supported opposition in a tizzy, because it has hit them where they really live – in their pocketbooks. No longer on the take, these "dissidents" on the make are furiously denouncing Putin’s government as a "dictatorship."

Yet Russia hasn’t been this free since the overthrow of the Kerensky government and the Communist coup of 1917, and it hasn’t been this prosperous ever. Luxuriating in oil and national gas reserves that may be among the biggest in the world, the Russians are coming out of their long post-Soviet funk – and reasserting their place on the world stage. That is Putin’s real "crime." He is making Washington very nervous, as the would-be hegemonists of the West eye the emerging Russo-Iranian alliance and chafe as Putin arms the Syrians with missile defenses against the increasing likelihood of an Israeli (or American) attack. And it isn’t just his actions but his words that sting. In a widely quoted speech at a recent Munich Security Conference, the Russian president took on the Americans quite openly:

"It [the U.S.-dominated unipolar world] is a world in which there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within.

"And this certainly has nothing in common with democracy. Because, as you know, democracy is the power of the majority in light of the interests and opinions of the minority.

"Incidentally, Russia – we – are constantly being taught about democracy. But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves."

I especially appreciate that bit about how the hubris of our rulers "destroys itself from within" – this is precisely what the domestic critics of the rising American Empire have been saying for years, and it’s gratifying to see that America’s true friends abroad see this, too. To anyone who admires the U.S. and is not the captive of a crude "anti-Americanism" – a woefully overworked catch phrase that has been shamelessly utilized by our government and its overseas amen corner to smear anyone who opposes American imperialism – it is no doubt sad, indeed, to witness the sight of the freest country on earth succumbing to its own worst instincts. Putin isn’t insulting us: he’s reminding us of who we are – or, rather, who we used to be.

Unfortunately, the interventionists in the media, and the War Party that has hijacked American foreign policy, are not inclined to listen, either to Putin or those here at home who agree that America is getting too big for its britches. What are we doing getting in Putin’s face, insulting him and his people by insisting that the OSCE send "observers" to make sure Russia’s election is sufficiently "democratic"? What would we have thought if Putin had sent observers to, say, Florida, where the drama of the "hanging chads" and the intricacies of the Electoral College denied the White House to the candidate who got the most votes?

It’s outrageous – especially when we’re giving full military, political, and diplomatic support to real dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who is now in the process of setting up a hereditary "presidency" and has taken to locking up bloggers for violating political and cultural "norms." And what about Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who is beating the crap out of his opponents in the streets of Islamabad, arresting the Supreme Court, and installing himself as "president" of Pakistan in a procedure that is a cruel mockery of democracy?

The difference is that these dictators meet the "pro-American" test, which consists of kowtowing to Washington when it comes to the conduct of foreign affairs, and particularly when it comes to providing full access to American economic and military interests. In the case of Russia, the Americans and especially the British are still smarting over the expulsion of Western companies from the lucrative Russian oil and natural gas fields, which is going to benefit the people of Russia rather than overseas investors and the usual gang of ruthless Russian oligarchs, who are little more than gangsters in business suits.

Russia for the Russians – the slogan has energized the pro-Putin parties and given the Russian president more power and prestige than any Moscow-based ruler since Peter the Great. It’s also a sentiment Western elites can’t and won’t abide, since they consider Russia to have been properly defeated in the Cold War and therefore fair game for economic colonization. Their reaction to Putin’s pushback has been an aggressive campaign to encircle Russia, starting with the ill-fated "Rose Revolution" in Georgia, followed by the various Western-engineered attempts at "regime change" represented by the so-called "color revolutions," from Ukraine to Kyrgyzstan, nearly all of which have since been rolled back.

The neoconservatives were early agitators for a more aggressive stance toward Russia: it was Richard Perle, you’ll recall, who led a neocon hue and cry over Putin’s alleged misdeeds, calling for Russia to be thrown out of the G-8. This was soon followed up by a full-scale denunciation of Putin by none other than Dick Cheney, who railed that the Russian president was ushering in a new Cold War by engaging in economic "blackmail" and "intimidation" against its neighbors. This attack was occasioned by the freeing up of Russian energy prices, which had long been kept artificially low by government decree: apparently, this move toward a free market in energy was considered a hostile act by Cheney and his fellow "big government conservatives."

As for Kasparov, the wannabe dissident who should’ve stuck to chess has links to the neoconservative Center for Security Policy, whose chieftain and founder, Frank Gaffney, is among the more frothy-mouthed warmongers in Washington. Another anti-Putin group with suspiciously heavy concentrations of neocons on the letterhead is the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, which supports the terrorist gang that pulled off the Beslan horror and bombed Russian cities. (If you’re a confirmed Putin-hater, however, you’ll already know that it wasn’t the Chechens who kidnapped those school kids at Beslan and planted those bombs, it was Putin who did it. Litvinenko wrote an entire book that blames the Federal Security Bureau, successor to the KGB, much like the 9/11 Troothers blame "Bushitler" for the 9/11 terrorist attacks – the Russian Troothers, such as Litvinenko and Berezovsky, claim terrorist acts carried out by Chechen rebels were an "inside job.")

The really dangerous aspect of the looming renewal of tensions with Russia is that Democrats, too, are eager to get in on the Russophobic act. It isn’t just Cheney, Perle, Gaffney, and the Weekly Standard railing against "Putinism," it’s the ostensible liberals, including Hillary Clinton, who are taking a hard line toward Russia. With the Clinton Restoration, we can expect to see more U.S. troops in Kosovo facing down the Russian-supported Serbs, who – thanks to the Clintons – have almost been ethnically cleansed out of existence in the former Yugoslav province. The neocon palaver about "democracy" is especially attractive to liberals of the Clintonian school, who bewail Putin’s alleged "authoritarian" tendencies and yet have no trouble with Hillary’s own stated hostility to the free flow of ideas and news on the Internet. When it comes to foreign policy, these same "liberal" types have no qualms about voting for a neocon-inspired war in the Middle East and would just as soon nuke the Iranians in "defense" of Israel. With Putin standing behind the Iranian drive to develop the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, the return of the Clintons will mean the return of the Cold War with Russia – and perhaps a distinct reheating of the conflict in the Balkans, where the last great Clintonian intervention murdered some 5,000 Serbs and rained bombs on some of the oldest cities in Europe.

Russia is not our enemy, and there is no reason to make an adversary of Putin. He is clearly an admirer of the American system and, in his drive to modernize, is clearly emulating the Western example, albeit in his own distinctly Slavic manner. Putin, in short, is no anti-American, like Hugo Chavez, although some well-meaning but shortsighted libertarians would liken the two.

Yet the alleged "Sovietization" of Russia is nothing of the sort. Putin’s "personality cult" is no more cultish than that of the Clintons or Obama. Our culture of celebrity virtually ensures that a cult of personality arises around any successful politician, because, after all, American electoral politics is all about personalities, not policies. Chavez is a commie who cavorts with Fidel Castro and proclaims the "Bolivarian" road to socialism , with his opposition centered in the middle class and anti-authoritarian students. Putin’s chief opposition, on the other hand, is the Russian Communist Party, which rails against his halting moves toward the market and joins with Kasparov and the NBP-led "Other Russia" coalition in characterizing Putin as a dictator.

Our national interest lies not in making enemies of the Russian people and the present Russian government. Putin isn’t a Jeffersonian democrat, but neither is he a Stalinist. He’s simply a nationalist who is steering his country though a difficult time. In his absence Russia would revert to the domination of gangsters and ex-commie "entrepreneurs" whose ill-gotten gains are currently feeding the Russian opposition abroad. All too often, our Western media allows itself to be used by these dubious characters, in unfairly portraying as "authoritarian" and "neo-Soviet" a Russia that is slowly but surely climbing out of the graveyard of socialism. The reality is much more complex.

Is Russia democratic? Yes, but the nature of the regime is irrelevant to the question of what our policy toward Moscow ought to be. Even if Russia should really begin to backslide into authoritarianism, as Western commentators like to put it, we will not benefit from trying to engineer regime change or otherwise interfering in Russia’s internal affairs – and neither, in the long run, will the Russian people.

Even given all Putin’s faults, however, the Russia of today represents a tremendous advance over the dark days of the Bolshevik horror: seen in perspective – that is, since 1917 – Putin’s Russia is a vast improvement, both for the people of Russia and our own national interest. Our intervention can only hurt the future of the Russian people and encourage a nationalist backlash we will live to regret.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

I gave a speech at the University of Berkeley recently: check it out here.

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