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Vladimir Putin and the State of Democracy in Russia

  • Simon Marks

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been taken to task by western leaders for what they see as Russia's backsliding on democracy. Russian authorities bristle at those suggestions, saying their country is going through the normal growing pains of a young democracy. Simon Marks reports on the state of democracy in Russia.

The fortified bunker that serves as the headquarters of what is now one of Russia's main opposition political groups, The National-Bolshevik Party. The murals on the walls tell the story of the party's ultra-nationalist roots; these people are not cuddly, western-style democrats.

But in the past year, following the annihilation at the polls of Russia's democratic reformers, the National-Bolsheviks have emerged as one of the few forces willing to challenge President Vladimir Putin. More than 100 of the party's members have been jailed for participating in what they call a campaign of civil disobedience that has included forcibly occupying government offices, and pelting government officials with food.

It's a campaign they continue to plan at weekly meetings where party leaders vow to continue challenging Vladimir Putin's dominance of the country's political scene.

"Our goal is to turn Russia into a normal civilized country. Strong, and kind to its citizens. At the moment, our main task is to bring back political freedoms and to fight Mr. Putin's regime. Because this regime is not sliding, but has already slid towards monarchy," says Vladimir Abel.

The National-Bolsheviks -- and other critics of the Kremlin -- cite several reasons for reaching that conclusion.Their party is not officially recognized and cannot fight for election. New Kremlin rules say only political groups with 50,000 members and registered offices in at least half of Russia's 89 far-flung regions, can put up candidates for Parliamentary seats. It's a high bar, given the bureaucratic hurdles entailed in opening registered offices across a dozen time zones.

And critics point to other developments here that they say shows the Kremlin is diverting from a democratic path. The media landscape has changed here, after several once-independent outlets fell under state control. Elections for the post of governor in Russia's 89 regions have been cancelled. The governors are now being appointed by President Putin. Demonstrations have grown over the government's handling of changes to Russia's system of social benefits, a move that has led both aging Communists and young nationalists to mobilize against the Kremlin.

About an hour's drive out of Moscow, Nina Victorovna spent the winter selling homegrown pickles and potatoes on the road outside her home. The changes in social benefits mean that vouchers she was once given for free public transport and access to social services have been replaced by cash handouts.

But she says the cash doesn't come close to compensating her for the value of the benefits that were taken away. It might not seem much, being told you've got to pay the equivalent of a dollar for a bus journey into town. But here, far away from the big money of the capital, each rouble counts, and the simplest of needs in the under-developed Russian heartland has the potential to create trouble for the Kremlin.

"Of course the authorities are to blame. Who else?" says Nina.

And so, the authorities now find themselves facing a wave of protests that have brought the old red flags back onto the streets. A decade ago, when Russia's pensioners demonstrated against then-President Boris Yeltsin, they were written off by many analysts as yesterday's people. Today, they find themselves championed for standing up to the former KGB man in the Kremlin.

That Russia's system of cradle-to-grave benefits had to change isn't debated by economists here. It's widely accepted that the modern Russian state, espousing a capitalist system, could not afford to continue treating its citizens to the same handouts that were designed in the Soviet era. But it's the manner in which change was introduced that has caused so much anger here on the streets, and concern among observers about competence within the Putin administration.

Julia Latynina is a democratic reformer who hosts a weekly talk radio show on Moscow's only independent local news station. Her access to the national airwaves in Russia has ended.

"I believe these are very great mistakes, and these are mistakes inherent to the regime. For instance, these are mistakes due to the fact that Mr. Putin likes to appoint incompetent and corrupt people. It's not just an accident. It's the way he makes decisions. Because he believes that if he puts somebody who's incompetent, then he will be loyal. And if you put someone who's corrupt, if you have a file on a man, you better appoint this guy because if he's corrupt, then you have tools to manipulate him because corruption makes him more loyal, this man," says Ms. Latynina.

But there are also articulate voices in Moscow that defend Vladimir Putin against his critics both at home and overseas. Alexei Pushkov is a journalist whose weekly television program is broadcast to an audience stretching from Ukraine to the far reaches of Siberia. He argues that Vladimir Putin's more authoritarian style of leadership is an understandable and direct response to the Yeltsin era, a decade that Kremlin supporters characterize as economic and political anarchy.

"Under Yeltsin we had chaos, anarchy, we had manipulated democracy. The outer shell was democratic, but inside it had nothing to do with democracy at all. And so after this chaotic, pseudo-democracy, the pendulum swung back from I would say this right-wing, chaotic pseudo-democracy. It went back to a more kind of command political system, managed democracy," says TV journalist Alexei Pushkov.

"So this excessive desire to rule, to model, to manage the political process, I think is a sort of response to the anarchic times of Yeltsin's era. And I think the pendulum will go back. What is the most important thing is that the pendulum does not swing wildly, you know. With every swing it loses a bit of its movement, and then finally it will come to the center where the majority of the so-called established democracies are. It will come there," he forecasts.

With minimal organized opposition, and certainly no viable liberal alternative that would win broad western support, Julia Latynina says Vladimir Putin may end up falling victim to a power struggle within the Kremlin rather than any kind of effective challenge from the opposition.

According to Ms. Latynina, "If you have no opposition, then this will be maybe not a revolution but just a coup d'etat, which maybe will be a very bad thing because somebody comes who's stronger than Putin, who is more cruel than him. Mr. Putin makes crimes and makes mistakes, but his mistakes are much more numerous than his crimes. So it's very possible that somebody comes who commits more crimes than mistakes. And then Russia will be in very serious jeopardy after this".

So the question in Russia today is whether the pendulum will continue to swing in a calm, measured manner, or whether something less predictable lies ahead. It's a big gamble, and one on which few Muscovites are currently willing to bet.