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Russia Profile
October 24, 2004
Neither Freedom Nor Security
Why Nothing Will Change With the New Anti-Terror Measures

By Yelena Rykovtseva

Yelena Rykovtseva is a correspondent for Radio Liberty and also writes on media questions for a number of Russian newspapers. She contributed this comment, which represents her own views and not those of Radio Liberty, to Russia Profile

The problem of striking a balance between security and civil freedoms can be found everywhere. Likewise, there will always be people prepared to sacrifice their freedoms for a peaceful life and others who are ready to fight for their civil rights.

But this formulation of the question is wrong for Russia. If you ask a Russian what freedoms he or she is ready to give up for the sake of security, he or she simply won't understand what you're talking about.

Here's a typical opinion from one of my radio listeners: "You can only lose what you already have. And personally, as an ordinary person, I don't have any freedoms, so I have nothing to lose. We had communism, and then came liberalism, but nothing changed for most people."

If you think about it, this is the honest-to-God truth. What can you take from a Russian in exchange for security? Can control over the media be made any tighter? Can the freedom to travel around the country be further restricted? The registration system has never been abolished, so Russians have never had the opportunity to travel freely from one town to another in search of work without getting registered. And it is unbelievably difficult to get registered through official channels without handing over a hefty brown envelope.

Two new restrictions emerged in the wake of the Beslan tragedy: People lost the right to elect their governors and they were deprived of the right to elect deputies to the State Duma. In the past, they voted for deputies in single-seat constituencies and by party lists. Now they can only do the latter.

To Russian liberals, these measures were undemocratic. The electors themselves, however, reacted paradoxically. On the one hand, Russians disapproved of having their rights taken away. Fifty percent of those surveyed were against the president's initiative, while only 39 percent were for it. But on the other hand, 45 percent believed that appointed governors would help fight terrorism, while only 29 percent disagreed with this idea.

How can these results be interpreted? Most likely, people are unhappy with the president's proposals, but at the same time, they are not going to kick up a storm if they become law. This apathy stems from the fact that the right to vote has existed in Russia, but only in a fairly abstract sense. You could (sort of) vote freely, but you also knew that the election results would be falsified in favor of either the Kremlin or a local administration. So nobody is losing much sleep over losing the right to vote. But the Kremlin needed these measures to protect itself against those rare moments when its candidate has failed to cruise home victorious (such as when comedian Mikhail Yevdokimov won the Altai gubernatorial election).

This indifference extends not only to the restriction of their personal freedoms (which, I repeat, existed only in the abstract sense), but also to the latest proposals on improving security. Perhaps this is because they contain nothing new. Terrorists have been attacking Russia for five years now. And every time they strike, the police and the FSB use these incidents to get more money and more powers. They turn up in the Duma and say, "We need new money for additional forces and equipment. We need new laws to have additional powers to check up on people." And extra money flows out of the budget and deputies adopt the new laws.

And then what? The authorities conduct their latest anti-terrorist operation, crowds of people get their documents checked and a couple of street patrols are reinforced. Then all the fuss dies down. The police are not interested in terrorism - they just want money. In fact, the transition from heightened security to routine bribe-taking happens rather swiftly. Izvestia correspondent Vadim Rechkalov, who covered the events in Beslan, was stopped by a traffic cop on the town's outskirts while the crisis was still going on. The cop gave him and his driver a long lecture about the car's registration. Then he took a 50-ruble bribe and let them go.

Later, Rechkalov told me, "Even if Russians had any genuine freedoms, and they agreed to sacrifice them for the sake of their own security, and if laws were adopted that would take them away on paper, then who would do so in practice? The traffic police? But the problem is not that they need to take our freedoms. They just need money. And they're prepared to take it from anyone. That is the cause of terrorism."

Of course, corruption is not the only cause of terrorism. In my view, until our country's leadership finds a political solution to the Chechen problem (other than appointing a puppet president), even the most honest police officer will not save us from terrorists. However, the Kremlin is still trying to convince people that the Beslan events were not connected with Chechnya, that the real cause of the tragedy was "international terrorism" and that it can only be defeated by adopting the next batch of security measures. Someone might even believe this, if the authorities were not so venal.

So what's the end result? Neither freedom, nor security. This is the modern Russian reality, and not a balance between the two.