Ill tidings from Russia

Today in Washington, D.C., I attended a Cato Institute event at the National Press Club with Andrei Illarionov, a former economic advisor to Vladimir Putin and former presidential representative to the G-8, who resigned last December saying that Russia was no longer a democratic country. The topic of his talk was the “death of the G-8″ augured by the upcoming meeting of the G-8 in St. Petersburg, Russia in July.

The main points of Illarionov’s talk are covered in his op-ed in today’s Washington Post.

Does Russia really belong in the Group of Eight — the assembly of the world’s leading industrialized democracies? As things stand today, it meets only one criterion for membership: the size of its economy. So far as political rights are concerned, Russia ranks 168th out of 192 countries, according to Freedom House. In terms of corruption, the organization Transparency International ranks Russia 126th out of 159 countries. The World Economic Forum calculates that when it comes to favoritism in governmental decisions, Russia rates 85th of 108 countries, in protection of property rights 88th of 108 and in independence of the judicial system 84th out of 102.

The principal difference between the original G-7 countries and Russia lies in their disparate approaches to nearly every essential issue on the global agenda. Russia pursues “wars” against its neighbors on matters relating to visas, electricity, natural gas, wine and now even mineral waters.

Russia’s official media have whipped up propaganda against the hard-won democratic road chosen by Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, as well as against the Baltic countries, Europe and the United States. These countries became the enemies in the new “cold war” being waged by Russia’s authorities. At the same time, new friends have emerged in the leaders of Belarus, Uzbekistan, Iran, Algeria, Venezuela, Burma and Hamas — a very different sort of G-8.

The question now occupying the minds of leaders of the G-7 countries is whether to participate in the upcoming G-8 summit in St. Petersburg. Idealists have proposed a boycott. Pragmatists oppose that approach. In either case, a bad outcome is inevitable.

….

Who really thinks that Russian authorities are going to undergo radical change after listening to the G-7 leaders? Will they cease their destruction of civil society? Reverse antidemocratic laws adopted in recent years? Allow free and fair campaigns and elections in 2007 and ’08? Give up control over the judicial system or the media? Return fired journalists and editors to their posts? Cease interfering in business? Refund confiscated property and fines levied against citizens and companies? Return billions of dollars of state assets? Launch investigations into bureaucrats, judges and prosecutors who have made illegal decisions?

In fact, the G-8 is not the place to clarify codes of conduct. The very suggestion that foreign leaders might feel the need to speak “frankly” about Russia’s domestic affairs confirms that Russia is not considered a full-fledged member of the G-8 even by those who intend to come.

… The G-8 summit can only be interpreted as a sign of support by the world’s most powerful organization for Russia’s leadership — as a stamp of approval for its violations of individual rights, the rule of law and freedom of speech, its discrimination against nongovernmental organizations, nationalization of private property, use of energy resources as a weapon, and aggression toward democratically oriented neighbors.

By going to St. Petersburg, leaders of the world’s foremost industrialized democracies will demonstrate their indifference to the fate of freedom and democracy in Russia.

… The G-8 summit will serve as an inspiring example for today’s dictators and tomorrow’s tyrants.

In his National Press Club speech, Illarionov — who described himself as a former “sherpa” on Russia’s trek into the G-8 — made a few other interesting observations: for instance, that while Russia’s economy has been kept afloat by high oil prices, per capita GDP in Russia has actually declined relatively to those of the G-7 countries in recent years (from 28% of the G-7 average in 2000 to 18% today). He also said noted that Bush has recently said that for the past five years he has talked to the Russian leadership about the benefits of democracy, and yet those same years have witnessed the dismantling of democracy in Russia: “This shows appeasement is not working.”

The question period, as always, proved interesting. One person suggested, somewhat rudely, that it would be a good idea to look past Illarionov’s “quarrel with the present government” and asked, “If there’s a free and fair election in Russia in 2008, won’t that be a signal that it is embracing democratic values?” (That’s a pretty big “if,” of course.) Curiously, Illarionov sidestepped the question of the election and replied simply that he had no quarrel with the present government and, in fact, had been far harsher in his criticism of the government’s policies in private, as an advisor to Putin, than he was now in public. (He also firmly declined to discuss the content of any of his discussions with Putin, except to say that he could assure the audience that his concerns about the dismantling of democracy in Russia were well-known to Putin.) He was also dismissive of another questioner’s suggestion that despite its problems with civil liberties and property rights, Russia ought to be treated as a partner on issues like energy security (that issue is addressed in his Washington Post op-ed) and Iran’s nuclear capability (those technology sales to Iran aren’t very partner-like).

Leonid Stern of Voice of America asked Illarionov if some recent expressions of dissent in Russia, including a rally for freedom of the press (I think he meant this one), could be seen as a positive sign. Illarionov reasonably replied that in a democratic society a protest rally would be an entirely unremarkable event, as it would have been in Moscow in the 1990s; the fact that it attracts notice today

I asked Illarionov a two-part question: about the state of freedom of criticism in Russia today, and (apologizing in advance for a somewhat personal question) about whether he himself was concerned about possible retaliation for being so outspoken. On the first part, he replied that freedom of speech implies the freedom to be heard: “Even in dictatorial societies, people can go out into the wilderness and speak where no one or almost no one will hear them.” In Russia today, he pointed out, there is not a single TV station that is not controlled by the government, no independent print media except for a couple of publications with limited circulation, and only one semi-independent radio station. Most people, he said, don’t have access to dissenting points of view.

As for the second half of my question, he didn’t answer it.

On his previous trip to Washington, Illarionov talked to the Washington Post‘s Anne Applebaum, who reported:

I should explain that Illarionov is in Washington this week for a conference. I should also add that he says he’s been surprised by how many people, both here and in Russia, have asked whether he’s really returning to Moscow afterward — “will you dare go back” being a question that no one even considered asking five years ago. It is tragic but true: Russia has once again become a place where blunt-speaking economists have to watch their backs.

This time, Illarionov’s silence in response to the second half of my question was quite eloquent.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Ill tidings from Russia

  1. Revenant

    Does Putin have an heir apparent, or is there some hope that things might revert to a more democratic state once he’s no longer on the scene?

  2. Jim

    I think Putin, or his popularity, is a symptom instead of a cause. This is a society undergoing huge stresses with a Byzantine political heritage – tsarist or Communist, or Islamic for that matter; Turkey is basiclly in the same cultural boat when it comes to political culture – and people in a crisis revert to what has worked in the past. The sad thing is that the (bad) remedies may actually have some short-term success, and be validated as far as the public is concerned. Putin became truly popular after the Chechen war flared up again,and people liked his brutality. Even the other, deepr promlems, such as the corruption and the ate-up economy, may respond short-term to his centralizing and autocratic style.

  3. Lori Heine

    Some areas of the world simply seem to take to democracy more easily than others. I have had high hopes for the Russians; it’s been nice not having them as an arch-enemy anymore. We’re right to be worried about Iran, but these folks are still able to give us an even bigger headache.

  4. bearblue

    I just got finished reading the Good Earth for a literature thing I’m part of at the moment and…I was noting that the cycle of Farmers moving to the City only to move back out to the Farm was still in play in China.

    I bring this up because I guess Russia is experiencing a similar old cycle become new.

  5. Eric H

    The end of the paragraph that begins “Leonid Stern of Voice of America asked Illarionov…” seems to be missing.

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