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Western Press Review: Russia's 'Overmanaged' Democracy And Urban Observations From The 'Baghdad Blogger'

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 10 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Much of the media today continues to focus on the 7 December parliamentary elections in Russia, in which pro-Kremlin supporters won half the seats in the State Duma, or lower house. Many observers within Russia and internationally are expressing concern over both the conduct of the election and what its results mean for the future of liberal Russian democracy.

We also hear from the so-called "Baghdad Blogger," Salam Pax, and of the importance of ensuring global access to information via the Internet, particularly in the developing world.


Writing in "The New York Times," columnist William Safire says Russian President Vladimir Putin and his former KGB supporters "have brought back one-party rule to Russia."

The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party won half the Duma (lower house) seats in the 7 December elections, thus "[paving] the way for Putin's takeover next spring as president-for-life." His supporters now have enough parliamentary votes to amend the constitution, and several observers speculate that revoking presidential term limits may be next on the Kremlin's agenda. Safire says gravely, "Russia's short-lived experiment with democracy is all but dead."

The electoral triumph of Putin's backers is due to two main ingredients, says Safire: money and media. Most of the funding for opposition parties came from "an admittedly unsavory source" -- the country's wealthy oligarchs. Putin "drove many of them out of the country, and a month before the election jailed the biggest," former Yukos oil chief Mikhail Khodorkovskii. This move "starved the political opposition."

But even more importantly, the Kremlin now exercises "iron control of major media." Safire says it has once again become apparent "that there can be no democracy without [an] unfettered press. Putin has made certain that media freedom no longer exists in his Russia. As a result, all that Russians see on television and read in major newspapers is cheering for the regime."

Safire advises Washington to "forget about enlisting Russian aid in bringing order to Iraq." He says "Putinism" -- repression through control over money and the media -- is "the last example Iraqis need."


Writing in "The Moscow Times," Boris Kagarlitskii of the Institute of Globalization Studies says Russia's 1999 elections had already demonstrated that "the ruling elite leaves nothing to chance or to democracy." President Vladimir Putin took control of the Kremlin from the Boris Yeltsin administration, and "gradually began to force their predecessors out of key posts."

The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party and its allies in parliament now have enough votes to amend the constitution and either "extend the presidential term or remove the limit on the number of terms a president may serve." The world is now witnessing "the progression from 'managed democracy' to an authoritarian regime with a democratic facade."

Kagarlitsky speculates that the Kremlin's main goal for the election "was to eliminate parliamentary opposition as a political institution. In this it was successful," he says.

He questions whether it is still possible for a viable political opposition to challenge the Putin machine. If so, he says, the new opposition "will arise not from parliamentary intrigues and petty politicking. It will only emerge when we refuse to play by the rules imposed on us by the current system. Sooner or later democratic longings will fuse with social protest. [But] how long will it take?"


Markus Wehner in today's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" also discusses the elections to the Russian State Duma.

He writes: "Russians went to the polls for the fourth time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The elections were well organized, as far as one can tell, and without any evidence of fraud. But that is all that can be said on the positive side," he says.

The elections have made clear that there is no question that democracy and civil society is nonexistent in Russia.

The harsh criticism of the elections from international organizations has eliminated the illusion that President Vladimir Putin advocates a democratic Russia. "The real winner was Putin's 'managed democracy,'" he says. "Obedient regions, obedient media, controlled parties and a parliament that is little more than an assembly to approve decisions made in the Kremlin -- this is the image of a political system that could better be described as 'ostensible democracy.' Parliament, like everything else, is now a mere appendage to the executive branch."

Wehner continues, saying: "In Russia, the state invents parties and decides which political forces should make up the parliamentary majority. What was feared at the beginning of Putin's rule has long since become a reality: democratic institutions exist, but their contents are void. Political technologists in the Kremlin, which has concentrated administrative resources within its walls, decide the outcome of elections."

But Wehner points out that a prerequisite for the functioning of such a system is "an exhausted, controllable, passive society."


An editorial in the British daily "The Guardian" today says it is "difficult to disagree with a single word in the draft declaration of the World Summit on the Information Society which opens in Geneva today. Everyone is in favor of universal primary education, gender equality, reduction of child mortality, freedom of expression, plus the empowerment of women, the young and the poor, not to mention affordable and ubiquitous access to information technology."

The problem, says the paper, "is translating good intentions into action. And nowhere is this more important than in bridging the digital divide between those with instant access to the Internet's treasure trove of knowledge and those who do not."

Roughly 90 percent of Internet users are located in industrialized countries, although they account for a mere 20 percent of the world's population. Africa, with 19 percent of the global populace, accounts for a mere 1 percent of Internet users.

The role of the United Nations in ensuring global access to information -- and thus, a range of opportunities -- could be vital, "The Guardian" says. Yet more resources will need to be allocated to this endeavor.

"There are few more noble returns on capital than using Western money to speed the information revolution in developing countries [at] an affordable price," the paper says. "But the consequences of failure could be disastrous."


A second item in "The Guardian" today is a contribution from the so-called "Baghdad Blogger," also known as Salam Pax. Pax came to worldwide attention last spring with his observations -- posted on the Internet from within Baghdad -- during the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. Websites in which the author shares personal insights and commentary are known as weblogs or just "blogs."

Pax says there is a new hit in Baghdad right now, a DVD and CD praising the Iraqi resistance fighters who are challenging the U.S.-led occupation. Pax says the songs are sung in Arabic verse, and he compares them to the way Iraq's traditional eulogizers, or maddahs, sing. The new maddahs praise the bravery of the "men of Fallujah," a hotbed of resistance fighting, for fighting "in the name of Allah."

But such bold statements "would fall directly under Mullah Bremer's [top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq L. Paul Bremer] fatwa about inflammatory verbal attacks on the coalition," Pax observes. He says he first heard the recording in a taxi. Later, at the looters' market at Bab al-Sharji, "all the stalls were playing the same thing -- the scary disc I heard in the taxi. On each stall, people crowded around watching that thing. It was selling like the hot bread of Bab al-Agha."

The DVD uses images of funerals of Iraqis killed by the coalition, mainly from the Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah television networks, Pax says. And ironically, all this "is happening as the official media channels -- the coalition-funded TV and newspaper -- are starting their 'Say No To Terrorism' campaign."


Writing in France's "Le Monde," Natalie Nougayrede discusses the defeat of Russia's liberals in parliamentary elections.

Fifteen years after glasnost and perestroika, she says, the failure of Russia's reformers heralds the beginning of a real change in the political climate. Neither of Russia's main reform parties, the Union of Rightist Forces and Yabloko, garnered the minimum 5 percent that would earn them representation in the Duma. Many Russians associate these parties with the continuing poverty stemming from Boris Yeltsin-era reforms, says Nougayrede. Moreover, they are blamed for the enrichment of a very few politically connected oligarchs during the widespread privatizations of the 1990s.

And the liberals fatally failed to unite when faced with the entrenched power of the Kremlin, which Nougayrede says acted like a "steamroller" ahead of the elections by manipulating both the media and the judiciary.

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report)