With Sunday’s accession of Vladimir Putin to the presidency of the G-8, post-Soviet Russia has achieved a new level of recognition and prestige as a democratic state. The recognition is undeserved. Instead of being democratic or even becoming democratic, Russia is daily sinking deeper into authoritarianism and lawlessness.
Last week Andrei Illarionov, who since 2000 handled Russia’s negotiations with the G-8, resigned on the grounds that Russia is no longer politically or economically free. “It is one thing to work in a country that is partly free,” he said. “It is another thing when the political system has changed and the country has stopped being free and democratic.”
Russian officials insist that Russia is democratic but that democracy looks different in Russia than it does in the West. Sergei Markov, a political analyst and Kremlin adviser, said that “Russia has as much democracy as it can have at this stage of its development.” The Russian system is described as “managed democracy,” a term reminiscent of the old Soviet insistence that the U.S.S.R. was a “genuine democracy.”
In fact, there is nothing democratic about Russia beyond the façade of elections that are regularly fixed. The country lacks three of the fundamental requirements of democracy — political pluralism, the rule of law and respect for human life.
There is no political pluralism in Russia because the Russian regime has worked systematically to eliminate all independent sources of power. The tendency was well illustrated by the recent adoption of a new law limiting NGOs. The law places a government body, the Federal Registration Service, in charge of NGOs with the power to shut them down on the basis of vague guidelines. Foreign NGOs can be closed if they threaten Russia’s “national interests,” domestic NGOs for two minor violations of the constitution or other laws.
This law was important because it marked the end of a process. In 1993, Boris Yeltsin abolished the former parliament, the Supreme Soviet, by force, and introduced a new constitution that provided for a new parliament, the State Duma, which had little real power.
Under Mr. Putin, new parliamentary elections were held during the early, successful stages of the Second Chechen War. In the war atmosphere, supporters of Mr. Putin were swept into office, destroying the previous opposition majority. Mr. Putin then launched campaigns against independent media outlets, eventually placing all TV stations with a national reach in the hands of the government. With the help of a more compliant Duma, he then removed governors from the upper house of parliament. Finally, after the Beslan tragedy, he eliminated the direct election of governors altogether.
Under these circumstances, NGOs were one of the last outposts of civil society. The new law, however, means that they have passed under the effective control of the state.
The effects of the destruction of political pluralism are magnified by the lack of the rule of law. In the absence of checks and balances and a separation of powers, the executive is free to rule alone and neither the courts nor the prosecutor can uphold the law. In this situation, two of the most serious examples of the absence of the rule of law are the hunt for “spies” and the murder of journalists.
The hunt for spies is the work of the federal police, or FSB. One of the most celebrated cases is that of Igor Sutyagin, a former researcher at the Institute of the U.S.A. and Canada who was sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp for giving supposedly secret information to Alternative Futures, an English consulting firm. Yet Mr. Sutyagin, a specialist on the American Navy, provided reports based on open sources. He had no access to secret information. More recently, Valentin Danilov, a researcher in Krasnoyarsk, was sentenced to 13 years for giving state secrets to China. He also provided information from open sources, a fact that was barred from mention at his trial. The effect of these cases and several others like them has been to stifle exchanges between Russian and foreign scholars on anything even remotely resembling a secret topic.
The murder of journalists, at the same time, is possible because of the impunity of business and local political elites. At least 12 journalists have been murdered in Russia since Mr. Putin took office, making Russia the fifth most dangerous country for journalists in the world. Not a single one of these cases has been solved.
The best-known is that of Paul Klebnikov, the editor of the Russian edition of Forbes, who was murdered in July 2004. Under intense pressure from the U.S. Embassy, the Russians charged a group of Chechens with the crime and a closed trial began last month in the Moscow city court. Unfortunately, the case is highly improbable.
The prosecutor says that the killing was planned by Khozh-Akhmed Nukhaev, the leader of a Chechen criminal group, who was interviewed by Klebnikov for a book but did not like the way he was depicted. He is still at large. Two of the arrested Chechens, Musa Vakhayev and Kazbek Dukuzov, are accused of carrying out the killing at Mr. Nukhaev’s behest. However, according to Alexander Gordeev, the editor of the Russian edition of Newsweek, who spoke to him before he died, Klebnikov said twice, with his last breath, that his attacker was a Russian.
Throughout Russia, relatives of journalist-victims insist that the killings are not investigated because the people who ordered them have connections to the police.
Finally, Russia is unable to qualify as a democracy because the government bureaucracy, unconstrained by law, shows a disregard for human life. Just how serious the problem is was demonstrated during the Moscow theater and Beslan hostage crises, the details of which have only recently been revealed. In the case of the theater siege, it is now known that the theater was flooded with toxic gas and stormed even though the FSB was aware that virtually all of the hostage-takers’ most powerful bombs were incapable of detonating.
Perhaps the most shocking example of the Russian authorities’ disregard for human life, however, was their behavior during the Beslan school tragedy. A report by a parliamentary commission of the republic of Northern Osetia, released Nov. 29, states that the military operation in Beslan began an hour after Alexander Dzasokhov, the president of North Osetia, agreed with a representative of Aslan Maskhadov, the leader of the Chechen resistance, that Mr. Maskhadov would come to Beslan to try to resolve the crisis. The report also said that the first explosion was produced by either a flame-thrower or grenade-launcher fired from outside the building — i.e., by the Russian forces. The inescapable conclusion is that the Russians opened fire on a building filled with hostages, including hundreds of children, in order to head off negotiations.
Witnesses at the trial in North Osetia of the only surviving member of the terrorist band testified that Russian forces also fired repeatedly on the school with flame-throwers and grenade-launchers 30 to 50 minutes after the start of the attack. This could have caused the fire on the roof of the athletic hall that led to the majority of deaths. In response to these conclusions, “Voice of Beslan,” a group of survivors of the terrorist act, appealed to Western organizations, including the U.S. Congress, for help in investigating the tragedy. “With horror,” they wrote, “we should recognize that terrorist acts are the authorities’ most effective tool for resolving “their political and commercial problems. We accuse the current Russian regime of aiding and abetting Russian and world terrorism.”
As Russia takes the helm of the G-8, but there will inevitably be questions about its right to such a role. The situation is aggravated by Moscow’s most recent actions. On Sunday, Russia cut off gas to Ukraine, in response to Kiev’s refusal to accept a fourfold price increase imposed in violation of an existing contract.
Under the circumstances, Russia needs to be held to the standards of the G-8, which is an organization of free-market democracies. Russia’s internal situation — which is so menacing to Russia itself — is the proper business of the other members of the G-8. And if Russia’s lawlessness continues unabated, it should put an end to Russia’s chairmanship and, ultimately, to Russian membership in the group itself.
The Putin regime cannot ignore the views of G-8 colleagues. This is why the West needs to use all its influence to counteract Russia’s self-destructive behavior.