So now Putin-Medvedev have come right out and made it plain. They want a totalitarian state, with themselves at the helm. And it seems that they will get it. They are going to enact a law saying that Russians who criticize their country will be treated as traitors. Since their party holds the vast majority of seats in the Duma, this law will certainly pass. I will be a terrible liability to my friends. If I call them, I could get them into serious trouble, for we would certainly talk about politics and they could not pretend that they approve of many decisions.
What surprises me is the disparity between the fears of the regime and the actual support that it enjoys. Right now there’s a deepening recession and Putin-Medvedev have been handling the discontents in a heavy-handed way. For example they tripled the import taxes on Japanese cars, which infuriated the people of Vladivostok, who use such cars almost exclusively. So there were protest demonstrations and police crackdowns, which cannot win the hearts and minds of Vladivostok’s citizenry.
Some of my Russian friends have been wishing for aneconomic crisis, for they believe only poverty will turn public opinion against Putin-Medvedev. All I can say is, be careful what you wish for. Economic distress can breed fascism or God knows what. It’s not necessarily going to turn people into freedom-loving democrats.
But the Russian government is paranoid. They believe that the rest of the world (mainly the US, of course) is funneling money and wild ideas to various pro-democracy movements trying to stir up a color revolution in Russia. I wish that were possible, but clearly you can’t run a color revolution unless the people want it. The guys in Washington can’t foist it on a reluctant populace. And the truth is, the Russian populace adores Putin.
That’s not unusual. Most dictators in the world are loved by the people. Stalin was adored. So were Hitler, Mao, and today still Fidel Castro – even by millions of Canadians who say they are democrats. So Putin is still their guy, even though he suspects otherwise. Last week he wanted a rule saying that presidents could hold office for six-year terms. Nobody objected, so it passed. Now he wants to keep Russians from talking to foreigners, sharing ideas that might be critical. And that law too will pass.
I wrote an e-mail to Ludmilla Alexeeva, offering to do anything possible to help her. She’s a beautiful old lady, respected and loved by all Russians for her life-long activism on behalf of human rights. She is opposing this law as strongly as possible, but it won’t help.
When I visited her in the spring she was the most optimistic person I met in Moscow. She was convinced that within fifteen years Russia would be a democracy. The people are changing, she said, and soon will be able to hold their government accountable.
I didn’t argue with her; after all, I was there to interview, not to debate her. But I knew that democracy cannot be claimed under all possible circumstances, just because the people are “ready” for it. Dictatorship is a trap. When people are prevented from communicating, they cannot plan ways of getting rid of a regime that they dislike. And nothing keeps Putin-Medvedev from blocking communication to the outside at any time. This new measure shows it.
So what can we do to help Russians retain their freedom? From one point of view, it is really up to the people to dissent, to protest, for themselves. But when the trap snaps shut, or the gulag prison door slams shut, they cannot accomplish this alone.
Sergei Kovalev, the wise old dissident, told me that freedom will not come from the top down, nor from the bottom up, but largely from sideways. We, living outside the country, have various ways of helping Russian democrats — both by supporting civil society there and by having our own government put pressure on them. They don’t necessarily want to be pariahs in the world, though Putin and Medvedev are seething with resentment, for reasons both valid and invalid.
The challenge is for Obama to do superlative negotiating. He will have to walk a fine line, not allowing himself to betray the human rights that must be upheld, but also not allowing himself to criticize Putin-Medvedev so strongly as to confirm their paranoia. He cannot get around to those negotiations for a long time, since the economy and other domestic issues must come first. I’m afraid that Hillary Clinton will just exacerbate matters unless he gives her explicit orders to be as friendly as possible.
But I couldn’t do it. I don’t know many people who could. And that scares me.
As a private citizen, all I know to do is work with the press to focus attention on this. I have sent a couple of e-mails to journalist friends and I will send more. Contact me if you have any good ideas.