A plea to save Russia from an enemy within

Under President Putin, Russians have pawned precious freedoms for economic growth.

The more Russian leaders pontificate about the importance of democracy and the more they swear to protect democratic values and principles, the less democracy is left in real Russian life. When Moscow bade farewell to the outstanding Russian democrat and reformer Boris Yeltsin last month, many ordinary people told me it was not just Yeltsin who was being buried in the Novodevichy cemetery but Russian freedom itself.

Young Russian democracy, which the Russian people seized from the hands of the Communists, has been almost completely destroyed under President Vladimir Putin. It has been exterminated gradually, by small lethal injections to its weakening body.

How freedom was lost

Why have Russians so easily parted with their freedom and constitutional rights? Have we thrown away our freedom like a boring toy or was it stolen from us one long winter night?

Neither the former nor the latter; freedom was simply exchanged. In an unprecedented deal, freedom was pawned in return for economic growth and growth of personal income. In the past seven years, Russian gross domestic product has increased almost 60 percent and citizens' income has doubled. That's why Russians are so tolerant of the loss of civil and social rights.

Since 2000, citizens have been losing their constitutional rights to elect and control the government step by step.

Among several other authoritarian changes, Russian citizens have lost their right to elect governors, who are now effectively nominated by the president himself. Elections to the State Duma (parliament) have also undergone considerable changes.

This December, all 450 Duma deputies will be elected from party lists, which means that for the first time in Russian history, direct elections of constituency members of parliament have been canceled. It will be scarcely different from the old Soviet council "elections." Russian citizens will choose from several parties, all previously endorsed by the Kremlin. It will not be a free choice but an imposed one.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has passed a new law that will allow it to legally liquidate most of the remaining parties in the country, the majority of them opposition parties, of course. The presidential "election" next March is also likely to be a sham. Few Russians believe that the elections will be free, that opposition candidates will be registered, and that they will have access to TV or be able to seek financial support from the cowed business community. In the absence of a real struggle, it looks as if Putin's successor will stride into the Kremlin along a red carpet.

The sidelining of the opposition and the predetermining by the powers that be of the parliamentary and presidential elections have pushed Russia back to the old times when it was not the people, but the bosses who decided who would lead the country. That's why 60 percent of voters in some of the biggest cities have stopped going to the polls.

As the government has increasingly slid from popular control, society understands less and less about what is really happening in the country and the world. After free elections went, freedom of speech was next to come under attack.

In the years of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, Russians welcomed the principles of free information, openness, and independent journalism and publishing. On Russian television, which remained the main source of news for the great majority of Russians, political talk shows that presented diverse opinion and criticism of the government flourished. Now that's all in the past.

Television (all six federal channels) has turned into a tabloid-style "Kremlin TV."

Opposition politicians have been effectively blacklisted from TV. In Russia, where society is totally manipulated by television, he who is not on TV might as well be dead.

As a result, the Russian mass media have again, as in Soviet times, become obedient instruments of unbridled propaganda. Recently, one editor at a TV channel received a strict reprimand because, for an instant, a camera showed the back of the head of one of the opposition politicians.

For the first time since 1989, there are political prisoners in Russia. Apart from the world-famous Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev (former oil business partners), they include young opposition leaders who were sentenced to several years in prison for their involvement in peaceful, albeit banned, protests against the regime.

A disturbing new trend has been the introduction into legislation of the general and vague notion of "extremism," meaning that anyone who criticizes the government or takes part in peaceful protests can be declared an "extremist." A new, recently adopted law is also adding to the pressure on Russian and foreign nongovernmental organizations.

Beating peaceful protesters

Last month, many Russian citizens and journalists fell victim to or witnessed the brutality of the special police, who beat and arrested not only peaceful protesters, but also passersby. No fewer than 700 people were arrested and 80 beaten in Moscow and St. Petersburg, according to human rights activists.

Scared by Ukraine's recent "Orange Revolution," the Kremlin is using batons to beat out of Russian citizens the very idea of mass protests. Thus, the citizens of a free republic are again having hammered into their heads the idea that they are nothing but the submissive subjects of a cruel empire.

And yet, despite this authoritarian crackdown, Putin's approval ratings continue to soar at about 80 percent. A recent poll showed that 65 percent of Russians want him to serve a third term. That would require a constitutional amendment, which Federation Council Speaker Sergey Mironov advocates.

As in Communist China, modern Russian authorities have drawn their legitimacy from strong economic growth. The bicycle frame of Russian authoritarianism stays upright as long as the economic wheels spin quickly.

But the Russian people, like the Chinese, are paying an ever higher price for lack of control over the government and the distorting effect of state propaganda.

The Russian population continues to decline and age. Meanwhile, corruption has increased 10-fold since 2000, while the gap between rich and poor has widened considerably. A mere 53 superwealthy Russians have concentrated in their hands a capital of $400 billion, equal to almost one-third of Russian GDP. The Russian economy depends more and more on the export of raw materials and is seriously sick from the monopolies of the biggest companies.

This cannot go on for much longer. Divisions and tensions are growing, as is the level of political and social protest.

'Take back our freedom'

To answer these challenges, Russia needs change. Democratic institutions must be revived to place the government under effective control and reduce corruption.

Urgent structural reforms are needed in the economy as well as an active antimonopoly policy to inspire openness and competition.

The social sphere needs urgent efforts to improve our "human capital" and lower the level of social stratification, poverty, and injustice. The petrol-fueled authoritarianism of former KGB officers can hardly be relied on to realize the need for this program or to carry it out in practice.

So here in Russia we have to go on with our efforts to convince our people to be more active and demand changes for the better. Stability and prosperity are impossible in Russia without democratic control and freedom.

It is time to take back our freedom and our rights from the Kremlin pawnshop. Economic growth will be achieved far better by the hands and minds of free people than by the frenzied blows of police batons.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a deputy of the State Duma, is leader of the Republican Party of Russia, which was banned by the authorities this spring.

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