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What Kind of 'Democracy' Is This?

by Isayevich (Aleksandr) Solzhenitsyn

New York Times, January 4, 1997

MOSCOW -- How does Russia look to Europe at the present moment? Usually, the attention of Western observers is not focused on Russia's overall condition and the forces at work in the country but on the latest developments, like the elections to the Duma, the presidential contest, the firing of Aleksandr Lebed, Boris Yeltsin's heart surgery. Any broad, deep view of what is happening gets lost.

As far as I can judge, two strongly held opinions are widely shared in the West: that during the last few years democracy has unquestionably been established in Russia, albeit one under a dangerously weak national Government, and that effective economic reforms have been adopted to foster the creation of a free market, to which the way is now open.

Both views are mistaken.

What is known today as "Russian democracy" masks a Government of a completely different sort.

Glasnost - freedom of the press - is only an instrument of democracy, not democracy itself. And to a great extent freedom of the press is illusory, since the owners of newspapers erect strict taboos against discussion of issues of vital importance, while in the outlying parts of the country newspapers get direct pressure from the province authorities.

Democracy in the unarguable sense of the word means the rule of the people - that is, a system in which the people are truly in charge of their daily lives and can influence the course of their own historical fate. There is nothing of the sort in Russia today.

In August 1991, the "councils of people's deputies," though only window dressing under the rule of the Communist Party, were abolished throughout the country. Since then, the united resistance of the President's machine, the Government, State Duma, leaders of the political parties and majority of governors has prevented the creation of any agencies of local self-government.

Legislative assemblies do exist at the regional level but are entirely subordinate to the governors, if only because they are paid by the provinces' executive branches. (The election of governors is only a recent development and far from widespread; most governors were appointed by the President.)

There exists no legal framework or financial means for the creation of local self-government; people will have no choice but to achieve it through social struggle. All that really exists is the government hierarchy, from the President and national Government on down.

That hierarchy is duplicated by a second, consisting of those appointed as the "President's representatives" (spies) in every region. The constitution of 1993, which was passed hastily and not in a manner to inspire confidence, groans under the weight of the President's power. The rights it allocates to the State Duma are exceedingly constrained.

Given that structure of power, it is the presidential elections, held every four years, that are most important to the fate of the nation.

But the 1996 election was not an occasion for serious deliberation, nor could it have been.

A "Communist cloud" hung over the elections - could the Communists really return to power? - and that hampered the voters. Mr. Yeltsin's side harped on that threat, presenting itself as the country's sole salvation. But even the Communists themselves were wary of coming to power, seeing no way out of the overall crisis.

The worst sorts of costly campaign spectacles were staged, at state expense, of course. Under such conditions, there were no campaign debates or speeches of substance.

No one even discussed the candidates' programs. Presented to the public only some 10 days before the election, the published programs consisted of 100 to 200 pages of vague text. There was no time for the electorate to sit down and read the proposals, analyze them and receive answers to their questions.

Every last channel of the state-owned television network broadcast incessant barrages of propaganda favoring the incumbent head of state; there was no possibility of presenting opposing views.

After numerous invitations from the so-called independent television station, NTV, I agreed to a 10-minute interview in which I stated that both of the main contenders, Communist leader Gennadi A. Zyuganov and Mr. Yeltsin, were burdened with serious crimes against the interests of the people - one for 70 long years, the other for five. I urged the electorate to vote against both, which would cause the elections to be postponed and allow new candidates to run.

But NTV chopped my interview down to two ragged minutes, and my remarks were rendered incoherent and meaningless. Thus did the President come to power a second time, without having been held responsible for all the defects of his previous term. This system of centralized power cannot be called a democracy. The rulers' important motives, decisions, intentions and actions, as well as shifts in personnel, are completely opaque to society at large, and come to light as only as faits accomplis.

Shuffles in personnel are presented in formulations that say nothing: "according to a report submitted" and "in connection with a transfer to different work" (often not indicated). Even when a person is clearly culpable of some wrongdoing, there is no public explanation.

The authorities operate on a moral imperative: We don't betray our own and we don't uncover their wrongdoing. So the fate of the country is now decided by a stable oligarchy of 150 to 200 people, which includes the nimbler members of the old Communist system's top and middle ranks, plus the nouveaux riches.

This is no tree of state grown up from roots but a dry stake driven into the ground or, as things now stand, an iron rod. The members of this oligarchy combine a lust for power with mercenary calculations. They exhibit no higher goals of serving the country and the people.

It could be said that throughout the last 10 years of frenetic reorganization our Government has not taken a single step unmarked by ineptitude. Worse, our ruling circles have not shown themselves in the least morally superior to the Communists who preceded them. Russia has been exhausted by crime, by the transfer into private hands of billions of dollars' worth of the nation's wealth. Not a single serious crime has been exposed, nor has there been a single public trial.

The investigatory and judicial systems are severely limited in both their actions and their resources.

Meanwhile, since the Constitutional Court is a mere plaything and the State Duma only engages in the slackest of monitoring, a dozen "councils" (beginning with the notorious "Security Council") and "commissions" (with their instantly growing staffs) are forming around the President. The Constitution does not provide for these bodies, which duplicate the work of the Government and its ministerial branches, creating a system of irresponsible and chaotic multiple rule.

Was it so long ago that we thought there could exist no more absurd and unwieldy bureaucracy than that of the Communist regime? But during the last 10 years, the bureaucracy has doubled and tripled in size, all of it supported at the expense of a nation that is being reduced to beggary. When a people is deprived of local self-government and when rights are neither guaranteed nor defended, those with the most initiative and talent can find few outlets for their creative powers, stonewalled by bureaucracy at every turn.

In what sort of democracy does a Government calmly slumber while great numbers of people have not received their rightful salaries for half a year? Recently, in various places a new idea has emerged: "committees of salvation," meaning ad hoc local agencies, an alternative government that fights to keep the little that people have left in their ruined lives.

In other countries, Russia's current situation would suffice for a major social explosion. But after 70 years of being bled white, after the selective annihilation of active, protesting elements, and now after a 10-year slide into mass destitution, Russia has no strength left for such an explosion, and there's none in the offing.

The so-called economic reforms - Mikhail Gorbachev's between 1987 and 1990, then Mr. Yeltsin's from 1992 to 1995 - are another problem. Having noisily proclaimed the slogan of perestroika, Mr. Gorbachev was probably concerned with smoothly transferring party personnel into the new economic structure and safeguarding the party's own funds.

He took no steps to create small and middle-level private manufacturing, though he did wreck the system of vertical and horizontal links in the existing Communist economy, which, though it worked badly did work.

In that way, Mr. Gorbachev opened the door to economic chaos, a process further improved by Yegor T. Gaidar's "reform" and Anatoly B. Chubais's "privatization."

Genuine reform is a coordinated, systematic effort combining numerous measures aimed at a single goal. But from 1992 on, no such program was ever declared. Instead, there were two separate actions, which were not coordinated with each other, let alone with the economic benefit of the country. One was Mr. Gaidar's "liberalizing of prices" in 1992. The lack of any competitive environment meant that monopolistic producers could inflate costs of production while at the same reducing its volume and the outlays for it.

This sort of "reform" quickly began to destroy production and, for much of the population, made consumer goods and many food items prohibitively expensive.

The other action was the frenzied privatization campaign. The campaign's first step was the Government's issuing of vouchers to each citizen that supposedly represented his "share" of all the national wealth accumulated under the Communists. In reality, the total value of all the vouchers represented only a small fraction of 1 percent of that wealth.

The second step was the sell-off, not to say give-away, of a multitude of state enterprises, including some gigantic ones. Those enterprises ended up in private hands, most of the new owners people seeking easy profit, with no experience of production and no desire to acquire any.

Russia's economic chaos is made worse by organized crime, which, never nipped in the bud, is constantly stealing the country blind and accumulating enormous new capital. The gap between the rich and the impoverished majority has now assumed proportions unlike anything seen in the West or in pre-revolutionary Russia. Each year, no less than $25 billion flows abroad into private accounts.

The destructive course of events over the last decade has come about because the Government, while ineptly imitating foreign models, has completely disregarded the country's creativity and particular character as well as Russia's centuries-old spiritual and social traditions. Only if those paths are freed up can Russia be delivered from its near-fatal condition.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970.
This was translated from the Russian by Richard Lourie.

© Published by the Australian League of Rights, P.O. Box 27 Happy Valley, SA 5159