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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- When There Is No Opposition

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 25 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Countries without a recognized political opposition are likely to find that the social and political space such groups normally occupy will increasingly be filled by extremists, according to an article in today's (25 April) "Izvestiya."

Its authors, Aleksandr Arkhangelsiy and Irina Podlesova, argue that even when such radicals appear to be marginal, they are likely to play a role far out of proportion to their numbers and poison the political system that gave them birth.

Entitled "Extremists are occupying the place of the absent opposition," the article notes further that Russia is currently experiencing the rise of extremists on the left and right who are unhappy with the current state of their society but who have no legitimate channels to express their views in the absence of a genuine opposition party.

Arkhangelskiy and Podlesova then discuss the ways in which the Russian government's response to such extremist groups -- employing psychiatric examinations and conducting closed judicial proceedings -- only compound the problem, further isolating people who might otherwise find a place in a genuine political opposition to the current government and its policies.

Among the examples the two authors give are the ongoing psychiatric examination at the Serbskiy Institute of a young man accused of involvement in Moscow explosions two years ago and the closed investigation of writer and National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov in the Lefortovo prison.

Precisely because these investigations are being conducted out of the public eye and because the two men involved, one on the far left and one on the far right, are viewed as marginal or even crazy, many in Russia or elsewhere are relatively unconcerned by this particular application of the state.

But examples of similar actions could be multiplied almost at will, the article implies, not only in Russia but in other post-communist countries as well. And the authors suggest, intolerance of a political opposition appears to be one of the hallmarks of many post-communist regimes.

Throughout history, governments have faced challenges from extremist groups and have used a variety of means to try to limit their influence. But those governments which do not tolerate the emergence and institutionalization of genuine opposition parties have typically faced greater problems than do others.

By equating opposition to particular policies with opposition to the regime or country as such, the historical record suggests, these governments unintentionally incubate extremist groups and alienate ever larger portions of the population.

But in adopting this strategy -- one inevitably justified by its authors in terms of the need to maintain stability or promote changes desired at home and abroad -- these governments unintentionally create problems for themselves both immediately and in the longer term.

Governments which function without a recognized political opposition and without a free media often appear to lose touch with their own people. And they thereby unwittingly help to create a situation in which the ranks of extremists may grow.

Initially, such extremists may appear to both the leaders and the broader society to be of little more than unwanted nuisances. But if the regime does not allow the emergence of and more importantly the institutionalization of a genuine political opposition, one that is expected and allowed to challenge the current government and even seek to replace it, such extremists are likely to serve as magnets for others in society who may be disaffected.

And because the movements that form around such people are inevitably going to be colored by their attitudes, such new movements will be even more threatening to the prospects for democracy than anyone might have expected.

That is a lesson, the article suggests, that people in Russia and the other post-Soviet states need to take to heart before they become another example of it.