Friday, 4 January 2008

Democracy Russian Style

Over Christmas we dined with several Russian friends. After one such dinner the talk turned to politics (for a change it wasn’t me who raised the subject). Our hosts are Putin supporters and the reason is that Putin delivers a better standard of living. Fair enough I suppose but what I didn’t expect was to have to defend the liberal democracy. The question was asked “surely you still don’t believe in voting?” As if I had just confessed to lingering doubts about the non-existence of Father Christmas.

In light of recent events in Pakistan and Kenya, who can blame them? Democracy as understood by the vast majority of the world is for the few. The recent thirty eight page dossier produced by the Pakistan People’s Party (formerly led by the recently assassinated Benazir Bhutto) apparently gives details the ruling party’s subversion of the democratic process. (I have tried to find a copy of this document, it would make interesting reading). It seems that Mwai Kibaki in Kenya has been less sophisticated, relying on simply delaying the count while using the time to stuff the ballot boxes. Putin on the other hand has been the most successful. He has been allowed to do this because he has genuinely sought to be popular. And in the main that popularity has been achieved by returning order to Russian society.

After the fall of the Soviet Union the rule of law broke down in every level of society: the democracy that was brought in with Yeltsin was in fact the rule of robber barons. As long as the President’s family was in on the deal, gangster-capitalism ruled. I could go to the endless media examples to illustrate this point but instead I turn closer to home.

A friend of mine in St.Petersberg is an excellent chemist and food technologist. He was the head food technologist in a small business. In the evenings he worked on new technology processing sunflower oil. After two years the new method was perfected and the patent was drawn up. Celebrations all around! Or it would have been if my friend hadn’t received an unexpected visit from two men he did not know.
“We like your patent. Sign it over to us or we will kill you.”

Putin hasn’t put a total stop to this kind of theft but for many, life is a lot more stable since 2000. After the criminal excesses of the Yeltsin years, that is good enough. Also Putin has restored pride to the country; going from 80’s superpower to 90’s beggar was a bitter pill for most but in recently the trend is being turned around. High oil prices and flexing of military muscle means that the feel good factor is back for the average Russian.

There is always a price though and in Russia’s case it is freedom of speech. Journalists (except in the tiny English language press) have returned to Soviet-style self-censorship, encouraged to do so by state persecution and even murder of colleagues. Oligarchs who have refused to bend the knee to Putin have either been imprisoned or fled into exile. They are not mourned by most Russians as the fortunes of the oligarchs were created during the corruption of the Yeltsin years. These times also saw Russia making many deals with western companies which with hindsight were seen as bad deals. Hence Russian moves to repossess assets such as Shell’s fields off Sakhalin Island and similar moves against BP in Siberia. It is this pressure against foreign corporations (especially British) that has led to degradation of Anglo-Russian relations, perhaps even more that the Litvinenko poisoning. I digress but all this conflict with foreign companies plays well at home for Putin.

Now we must look forward to the Presidential elections in March. I’ll leave the last word for now to the father of another of one of my Russian-born friends. When asked by his daughter who he intends to vote for, his reply was thus:

“I don’t know. Putin hasn’t told us yet.”

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