Thursday, June 09, 2005

Russia: The Democracy That Never Was

It turns out that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was interviewed by the London Times over the weekend, and what he had to say about Russia was surprisingly encouraging:
"It is often said that democracy is being taken away from us and that there is a threat to our democracy. What democracy is threatened? Power of the people? We don’t have it,” he told Rossiya, the state-run channel.

“We have nothing that resembles democracy. We are trying to build democracy without self-governance. Before anything, we must begin to build a system so that the people can manage their own destinies.”

He said that the State Duma, dominated by the Kremlin’s supporters, was acting “as if it were drunk” and the country could face an upheaval similar to last year’s Orange Revolution in Ukraine if the Government did not change course.

“An Orange Revolution may take place if tensions between the public and the authorities flare up and money begins flowing to the opposition,” he said.

Of course, he fails to make the connection between independent parties and independent financing, something that Putin didn't miss when the Russian government opted for a show trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Add this to the short but growing list of sins for Solzhenitsyn: "he attacked Mr Putin for failing to crack down on the oligarchs, the two dozen businessmen who bought state assets cheaply in the privatisations of the 1990s".

I came across this as the result of a Washington Post transcript of an online interview with Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, authors of Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution. (For those itching for a taste, you can read this excerpt at the Post's website.) I quote here the most interesting paragraph therein:

... the famous Soviet gulag survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was interviewed over the weekend. [He] told Russian TV that Russian democracy isn't in jeopardy because there is no such thing as Russian democracy -- in essence, this is really the line that Putin himself and his aides take. In fact, in our book we quote Putin ex-chief of staff Voloshin telling colleagues in private, "the Russian people are not ready for democracy." This is a key to understanding Kremlin thinking.
Regarding Bush's relationship with Putin:
The Bush-Putin relationship has evolved from that first, very generous view, "soul" gazing and all that. Now it seems to be much more skeptical. But Bush, having basically embraced Putin in the past, finds himself in the tricky position of being stuck with the his dance partner. And Russia right now is not exactly the center of the administration's attention
Obviously, the great interest these days in Russia is about oil. One questioner suggested the current regime parallels that of Czar Nicholas II. Baker and Glasser reply:
[O]n the historical comparison to the age of Nicholas II, one difference is that the economic deprivation of that time was so stark and for the moment at least oil has managed to float the economy and raise overall a standard of living battered sorely in the 1990's.
Which somewhat implies that, if the Russians have a half a clue, they will have to allow foreigners access to their oilfields, like it or not.