The historian Richard Pipes was warmly applauded by Russian journalists this weekend when he said that the country was so deeply undemocratic that it would take perhaps a century to develop a civil and open society.
The response to his words reflected a “great pessimism that reaches even into the Kremlin,” The Financial Times notes.
That insight appears to be borne out by President Dmitri Medvedev’s curiously laid-back state-of-the-nation speech in which he referred to an “unfortunate ….series of tragic events in which our citizens have died or were killed.”
“The reasons for this include laxity in the activities of law enforcement and other government agencies and, frequently, their direct merger with criminals,” he observed.
The New York Times describes one such unfortunate event:
Twelve people, including four children [aged 5, 14 and two babies], were killed at a holiday gathering here last month. Almost all of them were stabbed or strangled and then set on fire. The community’s distress at the brutality was compounded when investigators said that the suspects in the killings were members of a local gang that had sown terror here, unchecked, for years and, worse, had forged close relationships with the local government. Some of the suspects were even current or former elected officials.
A couple of days ago, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev lamented Russia’s democratic regression and dated it to the emergence of Vladimir Putin. He too suggested that the country’s democrats are in for a long haul.
“A competitive democratic environment needs to be built, with sources of initiative on all levels, civil society efforts and real public control,” he said.
The daunting challenges they face in doing so is evident from another New York Times report which details one woman’s attempt to challenge United Russia. The ruling party quite brazenly mobilizes government agencies to sabotage her attempts to organize or even to speak in public.
“Officials who do not obey the ruling party in relation to its campaign needs are simply fired from their jobs,” said Nadezhda A. Lantsova, a senior coordinator for Golos. “And the party can do this with impunity.”
Golos is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
President Medvedev’s modernizing reforms are “only superficial measures that in no way alter the political monopoly held by the ruling bureaucracy and the overwhelming dominance of United Russia as its primary political tool,” former State Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov wrote recently.
Given such episodes, who can disagree?
Ryzhkov is a steering committee member of the World Movement for Democracy.