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Moscow Times
October 12, 2004
Have Pity on President Putin
By Alexei Pankin

The debate over the fate of democracy in Russia that has been raging for weeks in the foreign and domestic press has generated a number of linguistic pearls on both sides.

The European Union's new external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, spoke last week of "a backsliding in democracy in Russia." A similar note was sounded by Pavel Felgenhauer, military affairs columnist for The Moscow Times, who wrote that Putin "is rolling back democracy." The Sept. 28 "Open Letter to the Heads of State and Government of the European Union and NATO" was a disappointment in this regard. The 115 Western politicians and intellectuals who signed the letter couldn't come up with a suitable term to describe the demise of freedom in Russia. Western election observers in 2003 and 2004, however, spoke frequently of a "regression of democracy" in this country.

The occasion for all this verbal dexterity is Putin's proposal to replace direct gubernatorial elections with indirect elections. The last major government reform also occurred in September and October back in 1993. Putin's reforms have been introduced in the State Duma, and won't take full effect until 2009. Boris Yeltsin introduced his reforms by dissolving, blockading and ultimately ordering tanks to fire on the popularly elected parliament. The Constitutional Court was disbanded, and the referendum on the new Constitution was rigged. When you compare Putin's approach to Yeltsin's, the "backsliding in democracy" seems to apply more accurately to the latter.

Those who stand "accused" of such "backsliding" have risen to the challenge by going after the "enemies of Russia." In an article published in Komsomolskaya Pravda, Natalya Narochnitskaya, deputy chairwoman of the Duma's International Affairs Committee, held forth about a worldwide conspiracy. The deputy head of the Putin administration, Vladislav Surkov, referred in the same newspaper to a fifth column within Russia.

Amid this entertaining polemic, Yevgeny Kiselyov's most recent editorial in Moskovskiye Novosti provides an unexpected reality check. The gist of Kiselyov's article is that we should take pity on Putin. He's nervous and fidgety, and any attempt to corner him in this state is likely to backfire. Kiselyov is one of the few pundits who understands that the regime is not authoritarian but weak. Its policies are not a conscious attack on democracy, but a way of appearing to take decisive action in a situation where something has to be done but no one knows exactly what.

The opposition is no better off. They huff and they puff but they have nothing practical to say. Since Mikhail Gorbachev granted us our basic freedoms, we have managed to develop just one democratic institution -- the form of check and balance that could be described with the Biblical phrase: "The harvest truly is plenteous, but the laborers are few."

There is unlimited room for journalists to criticize and mock the actions of both the regime and the opposition. We're all in the same boat, however, and no one's getting off. And that can get to a person after a while. You start to conduct yourself more carefully and to tell others not to make any sudden movements. Most importantly, you accentuate the positive -- Putin's popularity, which allows him to make a show of taking decisive action without sending tanks into the streets.

That's why I consider Kiselyov's call for his readers -- foreigners and the "tens of thousands of Russian democrats" mentioned in that Sept. 28 open letter -- to take pity on the president as a particularly constructive contribution to the debate about the fate of democracy.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals. [www.sreda-mag.ru]