Sunday, February 24, 2008

Putin Suffocates His Opponents

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — Shortly before parliamentary elections in December, foremen fanned out across the sprawling GAZ vehicle factory here, pulling aside assembly-line workers and giving them an order: vote for President Vladimir V. Putin’s party or else. They were instructed to phone in after they left their polling places. Names would be tallied, defiance punished. Over the past eight years, in the name of reviving Russia after the tumult of the 1990s, Mr. Putin has waged an unforgiving campaign to clamp down on democracy and extend control over the government and large swaths of the economy. He has suppressed the independent news media, nationalized important industries, smothered the political opposition and readily deployed the security services to carry out the Kremlin’s wishes.


Bee Anne said...

This story provided an interesting perspective on an issue that has been growing (and growing in importance) for some time now, but seems to have been continually ignored by the mainstream of American media and culture. Foreman taking over the psyches of their factory workers certainly does not sound democratic to me, and I wonder sometimes why they even keep up the pretense. The concept of "children's referendums" was almost mind blowing, certainly made me stop and think about historical parallels to other times when the innocent youth were corrupted into a movement they did not know much about nor were they prepared for.

I especially liked the author's description of the ways in which it is a 'new autocracy' rather than a revisitation of the old Soviet Union. Many people that I have talked to are much too eager to jump to conclusions on the subject and miss many of the important factors that the journalist took the time to include. It is also interesting, in light of our recent discussion about reporting in the Soviet Union, that many of the sources did in fact fear for themselves and their families and thus did not want to be identified. There may indeed be some stretched parallels, and we have to be very careful. The closer the 'government and the party' become in Russia, the more of a challenge it will be to interject western influences into the thinking and workings of the government.

Though far from being a Russian scholar - I sincerely hope Arman responds to this piece because I am sure he has some first-hand insights on the subject - I am simply a student interested in the workings of the international system, in which Russia has been and will continue to be a key player. I have watched the way Putin has manipulated his power with interest, and will continue to do so. It is my sincere hope that the people of Russia will not "tire of democratic twists and turns" and instead continue to hold their leaders accountable, not allowing a slippery slope to be reached from which there may be no return.

Arman said...

The paradoxical situation in nowadays Russia is interesting enough. From one side Putin has enormous support from people, from the other he jails his political opponents, who have scanty support. So, why does Putin imprison his weak opponents, thus endangering his already deteriorated image on the West? The answer is pretty simple, because Putin and Russian current government in general are mainly former Soviet KGB officers and they still leave with myths about international plots against Russia; they still see policy of the United States in the framework of Brzezinski and Kissinger.
There is no doubt, Putin’s support among Russian citizens is overwhelmingly high with over 65%. The secret of his success seems simple: he gave Russia what it need most of all. Putin took away freedoms but give Russian people the king, the “tsar,” whom they miss a lot. Putin took away freedom of speech but instead let the majority to earn $1000 or more (especially in big cities). In this regard on of Russian political observers actually joke that if Putin would ask Russian to elect his horse a president, they will do that.
However, it will be a mistake to say that there are no wise and liberal people in Russia. Currently there is a man, who was the richest man in Russia but who disagree with Putin and was jailed for 4 years in Siberia two years ago. He was offered to flee abroad but he said that he will stay in his own country even though he will be jailed there. This man’s name is Mikhail Khodorkovsky. I recommend to anyone who is interested in Russia, to remember this name because, I am sure, one day this pretty young person will play vital role in Russia.

Andy Heger said...

Arman brings up a great point in that the leaders in Russia (as well as other former Soviet states) are direct “descendants” of the old Soviet power: former KGB officers, Communist party leaders and organizers, and therefore it shouldn’t be surprising that overwhelming control and corruption even within the backdrop of a supposed developing democracy. Political corruption and intimidation not only exist in Russia, but in several other former Soviet states as well. I lived for a time in a former Soviet state, whether this type of government control has existed since it became an independent nation in 1991. This country has had the same president since that time, and he basically has given himself almost total control over political and economic decisions and has made every effort to thwart alternative ideologies. Political opponents and opposing journalists have gone missing or supposedly been set up for “accidental deaths.” Even the media and former main “opposition” party was controlled by the President’s daughter (and their relationship is still very strong).

The tough part about this reality (and the article does a good job on touching on this) is that from an economic standpoint, Russia is doing well economically and its citizens are reaping the benefits. I have been to Moscow and Saint Petersburg and was astonished by the cosmopolitan way of life there: high-fashion, constant development, even the unfortunate side-effects of the West, such as TGI Fridays and McDonald’s on every corner. The images I had heard about as a kid of endless and lifeless breadlines and omnipresent communist propaganda were gone and replaced by cookie-cutter Dolce and Gabbana ads. The future of oil in this part of the world is also impressive and worth monitoring. Essentially, Russia has re-entered the game as a global power that needs to be noticed. The fact that approval ratings are high for Putin and other former Soviet state leaders is a sign that the population may not miss some of the characteristics of a democracy we hold so dearly.

If I were a foreign correspondent in Russia or a surrounding nation, I would want to follow stories like the one presented on this blog, but would also want to focus on economic progress and future global implications. Also, the relationship between the US and Russia should be monitored. It has reached a certain degree of uneasiness.

I am not saying that what Putin and his government are doing is okay because of successes in other areas. I just find it fascinating that it is a system that is accepted bot by everyone, but by many. I wonder if it will last.

Tina* said...

As the person who worked on the country profile about Russia, I feel a kind of obligation to respond to this article.
The portrait of Putin's Russia that is described in the article represents a critical view of the country's political state that is reflected in most of the Western literature dealing with the country.
However, I don't completely agree with the point that there is a totally 'new autocracy.' Based on my readings, I had the impression that former ideologies and power structures in Russia are not overcome yet. As Arman has already pointed out, a lot of people working for the government have been former KGB officers, including Vladimir V. Putin. He has also been the head of the Foreign Security Service, a successor organization of the KGB.
But there is no doubt that, as presented in the article, Putin's reign distorts basic democratic principles. Corruption, organized crime, human trafficking and a growing gap between the rich and poor are only some political and social grievances in the Russian Federation.
All the more, I am wondering about some reactions of Russians that the New York Times published in its paper today. The Times published a Russian version of the article on its Russian-language blog on Friday morning. By Sunday nearly 3,000 comments were posted on the blog responding to the article. Beside some reasonable feedback, there were also comments which still reflect Soviet ideologies calling the article propaganda material from the West etc. Other reactions made me ask does the Russian population want a democratic system at all?
And then I thought again about the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and people's lives back then. As long as you conformed to the party (SED) and the overall political system, your life was not too bad. The State was your patron. I am definitely not trying to legitimate the former socialist regime in East Germany at this point, but I think it might help a little bit more to understand when, for instance, dmlord posts: "people do not need democracy" or victor_aka: "Russia has always needed to have czar who tells people how to live [...]." Russia is still a country in transition and maybe the time for an intact democracy is not ripe yet.

Annah said...

I am grateful for the Times' publishing of those comments from Russians. Very rarely do we get a primary source of the places that are written about. I know it was a mere 10 out of 3,000 comments, but I hope their selection attempted to cover the spectrum of responses. This reminded me of what Terry Anderson said about power. As journalists who go to print, we affect places and people and though we might think a NYTimes article is only relevant to our part of the world since it is an American newspaper, there are entire institutions focused on translating international media and using them in their home countries. I was grateful to see the home reaction of such an article.

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