Russia’s Dying Democracy

Russia’s Dying Democracy
By Stephen Brown | October 18, 2006

“She kept on asking for it, and she fell.”That is how the editor of one
Moscow newspaper correctly summed up the recent contract-style murder of top Russian investigative journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down in the elevator of her apartment building. The savage slaying of the internationally renowned Politkovskaya, who threw fear into Russia’s and Chechnya’s ruling elites with her relentless, uncompromising investigations into their corruption and human rights abuses, shocked not only her countrymen but the world.

The Russian journalist’s brutal death is symptomatic of present-day “democracy” in
Russia. This Eastern European land has degenerated into such a lawless state the last ten years that whoever “asks for it”, like Politkovskaya, is definitely “going to get it.” Regarding journalists, in the last fifteen years
Russia has become the third-deadliest country in the world for the members of this important profession behind only
Algeria and
Iraq. Forty-two Russian journalists “got it”, like Politkovskaya, during that time with few of their murders ever being solved. The Russian government appears unable, or perhaps even unwilling, to protect its newspaper writers, although a free, vibrant journalism is one of the pillars of a healthy civil society.  


But perhaps even more disturbingly, the world has seen the Kremlin export its lawless ways outside its borders to those countries who are “asking for it.” This criminal manner of conducting international diplomacy is now a part of Russian government foreign policy. One saw this not too long ago when the Kremlin tried to influence the outcome of the Ukrainian election. And the latest country to “get it” from
Russia is the small state of
Georgia, located in the
Caucasus Mountains on the
Black Sea. The plucky Georgians, who want to join NATO, recently seized – and released – four Russian officers, whom they accused of spying. In response, the Kremlin has imposed a transportation blockade of the Caucasian nation and stopped issuing visas to Georgians.


Inside of
Russia itself, the persecution of Georgian nationals proceeds apace. Many Georgians are living in
Russia illegally, but authorities have turned a blind eye to their presence – until now. Hundreds of Georgians have now been deported from Russian territory. Police have even had schools provide them with lists of students with Georgian names, so that they can check on the residence status of the parents. Even the Georgian Orthodox Church in
Moscow was not spared this disgraceful policy when holding a funeral, as attendees were subjected to identity checks. Postal services to
Georgia and work contracts have also been cancelled, while Russian tax officials are harassing Georgian-owned businesses.


As for the destructive long term effects of the ‘non-war” against Georgia, journalist Simon Shuster says the Kremlin is not only discrediting “…the essence and content of contractual rights and the market economy as a whole…” in the eyes of the people, but the people also see in cynical fashion that “…the law means nothing and can be used arbitrarily…”


And the extent of Kremlin lawlessness does not stop with the bullying of one small country. A German journalist, Jens Hartmann, describes
Russia under Putin as a “façade democracy”, behind which stands a ruling elite. And of the top people in the Kremlin, in the ministries and in the state industries, more than forty per cent have military or secret service backgrounds. This elite, including Politburo members, are also not shy in helping themselves to the country’s economic goodies. The Financial Times reports that
Russia is the only G-8 country, in which top Kremlin advisors sit on the board of directors of state concerns. Like in
Third World countries, private businesses in
Russia also find it expedient to have a secret police official sit on their board of directors for protection.   


One European newspaper reports other changes in
Russia that have caused democracy to decay. One is the growth of the FSB, the Russian secret service, from 80,000 to 350,000 members, while the number of government officials is now three times larger than in the Soviet era.
Russia, according to Transparency International, also now ranks a poor 126 out of 158 countries on its corruption scale. The courts and the legal system are also very weak, serving the needs of the elite when called upon, while most large media outlets have been brought into line by the state, giving Russians little access to points of view critical of the government and thus forming “an information blockade.” In the same newspaper, sociologist Olga Kryschtanowskaya describes the current Russian political system as neo-authoritarian and says Putin’s “militarization of power” is meant: “To keep everything under control: civil society; elections; the private business sphere; the independent press; the parliament.”


Most observers of Russia say Putin, a former KGB official, dismisses both internal and foreign criticism of the pitiful state of Russian democracy and bases his immunity on the fact his country is one of the biggest energy suppliers in the world, especially of natural gas to Europe. Western countries may be wary of criticizing abuses of democracy in
Russia too loudly for fear of jeopardizing their energy supply. Recently, the Russian state natural gas company, Gasprom, even bought a first division soccer team in
Germany in order to burnish
Russia’s image abroad, although the Kremlin used Gasprom money to control Russian media outlets. As well, many Russians, who are not used to democracy, support the government’s crackdown on those who disagree with the state, calling them anti-Russian.


The murder of Anna Politkovskaya, to a large degree, is owed to the atmosphere of lawlessness in
Russia today. History has also shown if lawlessness is ignored, it only gets worse. As a result, Putin would be wise to remember the fate of that other lawless state he once served so loyally and recall its degradation and collapse.

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