Russia's Non-Democracy

Posted in Russia | 20-Apr-09 | Author: Anna Borshchevskaya| Source: Washington Post

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev gestures during his address at the London School of Economics in London April 2, 2009.

If it weren't so sad, it would be funny to read Russia's President Medvedev's recent interview with Novaya Gazeta, in which he said, "Democracy [in Russia] existed, exists, and will exist."

Human rights still appear to be a luxury in Russia. Recently, Lev Ponomaryov, director of the Moscow-based Organization For Human Rights, and a leader in the new political opposition movement Solidarity, was reportedly beaten by a group of men outside his home . Stanislav Markelov, whom the Wall Street Journal called one of Russia's top human rights lawyers, was murdered in late January, as was Anastasia Baburova, a 25-year-old freelancer for Novaya Gazeta, which, according to the New Zealand Herald, is the last major publication critical of the Kremlin. Novaya Gazeta also lost three other journalists in the last decade-- Anna Politkovskaya, Yuri Shchekochikhin, and Igor Domnikov.

When I read about a journalist or a human rights activist hurt or killed because of their work, it hits a little too close to home. My father, who never joined the Communist Party, was a journalist at the Ostankino radio tower in Moscow until the end of 1993, when, after several years of trying to get permission to leave the country, my family and I immigrated to the U.S. with refugee status. I grew up knowing that certain opinions I heard at home were those of the minority and repeating them outside our apartment was not a good idea.

Several analysts have observed that Medvedev's recent interview with Novaya Gazeta, in addition to meeting with human rights activists in the Kremlin and hosting a new human rights council, is little to celebrate. Radio Free Liberty/Radio Europe reported that Vladimir Bukovsky, a prominent Soviet-era dissident, said, "Experts are already telling us that Medvedev is for liberal reform and Putin is the bad guy. This is how politics is played here. Now everybody is placing their hopes in Medvedev. If something bad happens they say it is Putin's fault. If something good happens, Medvedev gets credit. It is an old game that I have been watching for 40 years, and it is a game that I have grown tired of."

The problem runs very deep in Russian culture, stemming back centuries with only one person in charge. It is one dilemma that will not be resolved for a very long time. Shortly after our arrival to the U.S., my parents attended several job search skills seminars for recently arrived immigrants. In one of these sessions, the issue of employee rights and how they are treated in the workplace came up. My parents were surprised to discover how much respect for individual employees was emphasized--the idea was so new and foreign.

When I spent a week in Moscow this past March, a journalist, and a friend of my father, told me that I'm lucky because I can say what I think, implying that is still not possible in Russia - at least not without the fear of persecution that could potentially follow. He proceeded to explain how Pushkin would veil certain criticisms of the czar in his poetry, since it was not possible to do so outright.

It is true--a publication like Novaya Gazeta could not have existed during the Soviet era. But the Russian government mainly allows it to exist because it serves certain purposes, such as creating an appearance of free press. In a country that was built, after its last czar was killed, on the idea that everything was "for the person, by the person, and in the name of the person," as one Soviet slogan went, it seems everything still is indeed "for the person"-- the same person whom, according to a Soviet-era joke, one man from rural Russia saw for the first time when he went to the Red Square.