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Journal of Democracy 12.4 (2001) 79-86
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Ten Years After the Soviet Breakup
Russia has lived for almost two years without President Boris Yeltsin; a new age, a new millennium even, has begun. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that political time in Russia is flowing backward. Increasingly, the old, updated, is returning in the guise of the new.
I am not referring simply to the return of the Soviet national anthem or the triumphal concert in the Kremlin on the anniversary of the creation of the Cheka (the predecessor of the KGB). There is much in our politics today that is reminiscent not of yesterday but of the day before yesterday. We are returning to the "familiar things" of days gone by: the renunciation of freedom of speech, the renunciation of freedoms in general, the renunciation of the principle that the army should not be used in internal conflicts, the renunciation of private initiative, the renunciation of enterprise, the renunciation of truth-telling, and the expectation that benefits will be distributed from above. This is connected with the nostalgia that a very large number of people in Russia, a majority in fact, feel for the most stagnant Soviet times and traditions. Indeed, the main thrust of official policy is to encourage this mentality.
What we have in our country today is artificial, formal, sham democracy.
Our freedom of speech is a sham because, with rare exceptions, the only thing that one can do freely in the mass media is praise the government. It is easy to trump up criminal charges against anyone who understands freedom of speech as the right to say what he really thinks. [End Page 79]
Our elections are a sham because citizens are virtually deprived of the possibility of changing the government as they wish. The best they can hope for is to replace the local elite with someone whom the Kremlin supports.
Our multipartism is a sham because the "party of power," whose place is occupied by Edinstvo (Unity) today,is in a uniquely privileged position. All the other parties have to make a choice: Either become loyal or lose any chance to influence what is going on in the country.
Our legal system is a sham because the courts are not independent. Often they do not so much hand down sentences as offer their services to the authorities.
Our separation of powers is a sham because the executive branch is not checked by the legislature and does not execute its laws. In a normal democratic country, parties fight for places in parliament in order to win the right to form the government; in Russia, the government creates a party so that it can form the parliament it needs.
The political scientists at Putin's court call this sham democracy a "guided" democracy. The bosses can remain in power regardless of the will of the voters, or they can form this "will," if they have to, by deceiving the people on a grand scale, as happened in the 1999 and 2000 elections. The people were shamelessly duped, and the results of the elections were just as shamelessly manipulated to favor the "party of power."
This is a renovated version of the system in place 15 years ago, when we also had a virtually unchangeable government, courts that churned out made-to-order decisions, pro forma elections that convinced no one, and the guiding and directing role of one party. And, as with our current system, that party's ideologists and commentators "freely" praised it in the mass media.
Politics as a Covert Operation
Official politics today is like a covert operation in which those in power say one thing, think another, do something else, and want something entirely different. As a result, they get something they never intended. Normal, public, open politics has been replaced by intrigue, lies, the "black PR" of political provocateurs who call themselves "political technicians," and behind-the-scenes struggles.
Those in power do not debate the opposition, refute its arguments, or counter its political programs with their own. Instead, they...