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(Un)Civil Societies: February 20, 2008

Afghanistan: New Party To Focus On Women's Rights

By Farangis Najibullah

Afghanistan's parliament already has some women representatives

For nearly three decades, Afghans have endured war and foreign occupation, extreme poverty, and the Taliban. Yet some suffer more than others. Not all Afghans are created equal. Fatima Nazari wants to change that.

Nazari, an Afghan parliamentarian, is the driving force behind the country's first political party dedicated to women's rights and issues. She launched National Need on February 19 at a ceremony in Kabul, saying the party hopes to put women's rights at the forefront of the national political debate. It intends to run in the next parliamentary elections, likely in three years' time.

"I believe women understand their own problems better than men would," she says, adding that National Need will seek to increase women's participation in politics and business. "We want to campaign for democracy, not only talk about democracy. In this way, we want to work with our brothers and the rest of Afghan society."

Some of Nazari's fellow deputies and officials in Kabul welcomed the creation of the country's first-ever women's political party. Some called it a step forward toward greater democracy and recognition of women's rights.

Because of quotas stipulated in the internationally backed Afghan Constitution, the Afghan parliament has a relatively high representation of women -- 23 of the 100 members of the upper house and 68 of the 249 deputies in the lower house are women.

But in a deeply conservative Islamic country devastated by decades of war, poverty, and a lack of education, that's not enough. "I have already dealt with women's issues as a deputy," Nazari tells RFE/RL. "But I eventually felt that we Afghans needed a special party entirely focused on women to raise their profile."

Tradition Of Exclusion, Abuse

Not everyone is so optimistic. Nazari says the party already boasts 22,500 registered members, men and women, not only in Kabul but also conservative areas such as Paktika, Maidan Wardak, and Helmand. Yet can a neophyte political party hope to change traditional views about the role of women in a place like Afghanistan?

Maryam Panjsheri has her doubts. A female activist in the northern Panjsher Valley, she says she is "highly skeptical" about National Need's potential to forge change beyond the capital and a few bigger cities, such as Mazar-e Sharif or Herat.

"It's all for show," Panjsheri tells RFE/RL. "The party leaders will give speeches, interviews, set up seminars -- and that's all they'll do. I don't think women's organizations play a significant role in Afghan women's lives. I don't believe there is such a group that fights for their economic well-being, rights, or health care. I'm just being realistic."

Besides all the war and poverty, Afghan women are also systematically excluded from social, political, and public life, and are often victims of domestic violence. Even Afghan officials admit that while women have improved job and educational opportunities since the fall of the Taliban, domestic violence against women is unchanged. It might be even more common than before. According to the Ministry of Women's Affairs, over the last year more than 2,000 cases of violence against women have been registered. Yet most abuse goes unreported.

Often, very young Afghan girls are also victims of fixed marriages. Some parents force their daughters -- sometimes as young as 8-years-old -- into marriage to settle debts or family feuds.

Moreover, women usually cannot leave their families or seek a divorce, because in many parts of Afghanistan divorce is considered dishonorable. A divorced woman cannot return to her parents' family and, in an impoverished country with widespread unemployment, she cannot rebuild her life on her own, either.

Some women seek escape by self-immolation, resulting in death or disfigurement. Last year, at least 30 women committed suicide in the western Farah Province alone, most of them by setting themselves on fire, according to Afghan media reports.

One Step At a Time

Panjsheri acknowledges her hopes may seem unrealistic. "We know our goals won't be easy to implement, but they are realistic," she says. "We know it won't happen overnight. It may take many years." Panjsheri adds that the biggest challenge will be to reach the women in the most conservative families.

For now, that's a tall order. "Parents who deny education for their daughters, force their young girls into marriage, or a husband who abuses his wife, definitely would not allow rights activists to meet their daughters and wives to educate them about their rights and invite them into politics and business," she says.

But you've got to start somewhere, says Malolai Rushandil Osmani, a women's rights activist in the northern Balkh Province. Speaking to RFE/RL, Osmani acknowledges the challenges facing both women and women's rights activists. "It's a difficult task, especially in the conservative southern and eastern provinces. But one way or another, you have to try."

Osmani, who runs the women's NGO Foundation to Defend Afghan Women's Rights, has her own tactics for promoting women's rights in sensitive areas. "When we go to a village, first of all we talk to the local elderly and the local religious leader," she says. "With their approval, we can then meet with their families. Everybody accepts the fact that it would be better if women dealt with women's issues."

Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, millions of Afghan girls have returned to school all over the country. Many women now have access to jobs and medical care. In the past five years, in the southern city of Kandahar alone, some 5,000 women have graduated from special literacy courses where they were taught to read and write as well as skills such as dressmaking or computer knowledge. And recently, the government announced a strategy to give nearly one-third of state jobs to women by 2012.

"Let's just hope the new party's leaders really seek to improve Afghan women's lives, and that they include every woman everywhere -- from Kabul to the most remote villages," Osmani says.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.)

UN, Campaigners Highlight Grim Reality Of 'Happy Trafficking'

By Eugen Tomiuc

An ad in a Moldovan newspaper does traffickers' bidding

Lia was lured by a "friend" from her native Moldova with promises of a job and a better life. But once in Turkey, those hopes were quickly replaced with fears for her life after the acquaintance turned her over to sex traffickers.

She'd been "betrayed" and unwittingly sold into a nightmare existence.

"I was humiliated, and I can't find the right words to describe the horrors I was going through," Lia told RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service after she'd managed to escape. "I took a bath every time I came across some water, hoping the soap could wash away all the pain from my body. There was not a single day without sexual abuse and threats."

Reliable data are hard to find, but an estimated 2.5 million people are victims of forced labor at any given moment around the world, many for sexual exploitation. Victims are trafficked across borders, regions, and continents as part of a trade that reaps some $32 billion a year -- half of it from transactions in the industrialized world.

The antitrafficking community -- allying government officials, multinational organizations, and civil-society activists -- fears that the prevalence of a tactic known as "happy trafficking" could extend the reach of traffickers and exacerbate the problem.

The method minimizes risks to organizers and maximizes profits in a sort of human pyramid scheme. It combines physical and psychological pressure with financial and other incentives to turn victims into proxy recruiters and, eventually, traffickers.

In part to avoid detection by authorities, traffickers pledge to release some victims -- and even reward them financially -- on condition that they return to their home countries and recruit one or more women to replace them. "Happy" refers to recruiters' practice of pretending to have had an ideal experience in legitimate jobs in the West or elsewhere, hiding the fact that they'd been forced into prostitution themselves.

International media first signaled the emergence of "happy trafficking" in the Balkans and Italy, but campaigners warn that it has become common practice in many parts of the world.

Post-Soviet Vulnerability

In Europe, the converted recruiters are frequently former sex workers from Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, or Balkan and Southeastern European states like Bulgaria and Romania.

Central Asia is also emerging as one of the hotspots where "happy traffickers" are active.

One activist who works with trafficked women in Thailand told RFE/RL that large numbers of Central Asian women have been turned into sex workers in Bangkok. The activist, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, singled out young Uzbek women as especially prevalent, perhaps due to broad unhappiness over poverty and dire social conditions at home.

"I meet literally hundreds of women from Central Asia -- particularly from Uzbekistan -- on any night of the week," the activist said. "I haven't got any statistics, but I would probably estimate that at least a couple of thousand Uzbek women, if not more, are in Thailand as sex workers."

She said thousands of women from Uzbekistan are lured to Thailand by Uzbek recruiters known as "Mama-sans" -- former sex workers who have themselves become madams under the supervision of traffickers.

Reprisals are harsh against those who try to escape, so the prospect of release in exchange for recruiting new victims can be difficult to resist.

Traffickers are keen to use the former sex workers as go-betweens because they are familiar with the business and, at the same time, provide criminal organizers a way to remain invisible to authorities.

Kristiina Kangaspunta, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) antitrafficking unit, says "happy trafficking" reinforces the perception of traffickers exercising total power over their victims. Women who accept roles as facilitators or madams are being given a poisoned chalice by traffickers, Kangaspunta says, becoming traffickers themselves.

"They are not given all kinds of jobs -- very often they are not at the top of the organization," Kangaspunta says. "They are also given jobs which are the most visible [to] the authorities, so they are also the most risky. So traffickers can protect themselves and use victims as traffickers...and the authorities might think that they are also victims, so that it's not so visibly evident that they are also traffickers. So, in a way, they are once again abused by traffickers, but [in order to control] the others."

Psychological Torment

Antitrafficking activists note that "happy trafficking" is simply refined psychological coercion that says: Comply, and you'll be rewarded; cross us, and unspeakable things can happen to you and your family.

Some women who manage to escape sex traffickers provide testify to the terror to which they are subjected. Irina, a 16-year-old Moldovan girl, was lured to Russia by a neighbor who promised her a job as a seamstress. Once she left her home, Irina was sold to sex traffickers for $200.

"If we didn't want [to do as we were told], they beat us," Irina says. "They told us that they would push us out the window, that they would kill us. They told us that they bought us -- they paid good money for us -- and they can do what they want with us."

Steve Chalke, who heads Stop The Traffik, a global coalition of more than 700 charities in 60 countries that is working to stop the buying and selling of people, tells RFE/RL that the psychological barrier is even more effective than physical coercion. But he suggests that it does not represent any fundamentally new challenge.

"'Happy trafficking' is just the latest term for what's actually been happening for a long while," Chalke says. "All trafficking relies on manipulation. 'When a girl is trafficked to the city and used as a prostitute, why doesn't she just leave the brothel? Why doesn’t she just run on the street and throw herself at a passing policeman, or run away as fast as she can?' The actual fact is that she could do that, but the only thing that stops her from doing that is the mental barrier."

He and other experts lay some of the blame on societies from which the trafficked women hail -- where from an early age girls are encouraged to accept male dominance and a woman's role as a sex object.

UN Deputy Secretary-General and UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa told RFE/RL on the sidelines of the UN-organized Vienna Forum to Fight Human Trafficking in mid-February that trafficking victims remain "mental slaves even after their body is free to move and has been rescued physically."

At the same conference, Kangaspunta highlighted the pernicious threat posed by "happy trafficking."

"Probably the most vulnerable group to be victimized through human trafficking are those sex workers who are already working in the business," Kangaspunta told RFE/RL. "They are very vulnerable, nobody is protecting them, their value already in the society is quite low. So in that sense, they are very vulnerable for being recruited for human trafficking -- because actually nobody cares."

(RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service contributed to this report.)

UNODC Chief Talks About Trafficking Challenge

UN Undersecretary-General and UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa (photo UN.GIFT/Mario Romulic)

RFE/RL caught up with UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa on the sidelines of the UN-organized Vienna Forum to Fight Human Trafficking in mid-February to discuss international efforts to combat "modern-day slavery." He told correspondent Eugen Tomiuc about the birth of the Global Initiative To Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT) and the obstacles to more effective policing.

RFE/RL: The Vienna Forum to Fight Human Trafficking managed to gather together some 1,000 participants from around 100 countries. International organizations, UN agencies, NGOs, antitrafficking activists all sent the message that human trafficking -- whether it is meant for sexual exploitation, forced labor, or organ transplants -- has become a huge problem for the modern world. But beyond whistle-blowing and statements of sympathy for the victims, what do you expect from this event?

Antonio Maria Costa: I have great expectations which are becoming every day more realistic. When we started this initiative about a year ago -- the initiative is called UN.GIFT -- Global Initiative To Fight Human Trafficking -- we did not really know where we were heading. We had a good, strong starting point, namely the protocol, the international agreement [to establish UN.GIFT], but there was a lot of skepticism about whether much could be done about it, [because] of lack of money. But eventually all of this was overcome. We have a good sense of direction, we have the resources provided [in the form of a grant] by the United Arab Emirates, and of course this forum is proving a resounding success. Not necessarily yet in terms of outcome --- we shall see -- but in terms of participation of different components of our society. What I would like is to have some very concrete leads into the future -- operational programs, commitment by joint ventures to do more and more together, so I have great expectations about it.

RFE/RL: When RFE/RL raised the question at the conference about the new technique used by sex traffickers, which is perversely called "happy trafficking," [eds: traffickers are promising to release some of their sex victims and even reward them financially -- on condition they return to their home countries and bring back one or even more women to replace the released one], interest about the issue was huge in our broadcast area. However, there was no immediate sign that international organizations have a solution to fight this new trend.

Costa: It's not easy for me to give you a silver bullet [solution] to stop this "happy" trafficking. But certainly, having just recently talked to field victims we do see a pattern there where the individuals who go through this ordeal, they are perhaps physically freed at one point. But mentally they are not. They are mental slaves even after their body is free to move and has been rescued physically. So we have to invest many more resources, intellectual, financial and others in understanding what goes on in the mind of the trafficked people.

We somehow assume they can switch on and off -- namely, having been rescued they can go and meet the police and talks to the police frankly and openly about their ordeal. They cannot. They cannot as we were shown in the mock trial [presented at the forum] because they are mesmerized, at times they don't even know the language, they are afraid, they are afraid of being recaptured, they are afraid of retaliation on their families. So all of this proves that the pattern -- you call it "happy trafficking" -- the pattern of the predator being able to go back more and more to the same victim, or using the same victim to hook up to another victim, that pattern is also the consequence of the mental exploitation. And this is something I promise to Radio Free Europe as well as to other media as well as to [UNODC] member states to work a lot more on, because we are really just scratching the surface of this problem.

RFE/RL: Somehow it looks like the traffickers, the criminals, are always one step ahead of the authorities. It’s as if they were waging a highly efficient guerrilla war against a conventional armed force. It causes frustration among victims and observers, and raises doubts about the efficiency of the authorities’ approach.

Costa: I certainly agree with some of the many points you raised. First, criminals in general are ahead of the game in the sense that they write their own rules. We, law enforcement officials, governments, international organizations have rules, we cannot go beyond certain rules. So by definition these free operators are always ahead of the game, whether we talk about money laundering or clandestine arms trading or drug trafficking.

RFE/RL: It was said during the forum that sex trafficking has a lot to do with the way women are regarded and treated in certain cultures and societies. It is very true that at the source of sex trafficking, in many regions, women are regarded as objects which can be exploited and sold for profit. However, half of the huge profits made by sex traffickers, estimated at more than $31 billion a year, come from the industrialized world, the Western world. That makes us wonder, do Western men regard women in general the way they should?

The answer is absolutely not. I think that women and their rights are belittled in many of our societies. It's enough to look at the way the garment industry and some of the advertising campaigns are run. The way women are dressed -- or undressed for that matter -- basically naked, in posters splashed or plastered all over our cities and our screens, television and otherwise. This is a factor which is very prominently pushing sex, in a sense even sexual exploitation, right on our doorsteps, right on the screens in our living rooms, right in front of the eyes of our children.

And then, we are surprised when something happens -- a woman is exploited and so forth. The whole [Western] culture is prone to making this business flourish. So while we need to have interdiction operations and legislation to rescue victims, I think we should look at the direction our society [is heading toward] -- with so much emphasis on sex and exploitation, especially of a woman's body, even if it may only be visual exploitation on the screen or on a poster. But this is demeaning for women, this is a form of victimization of women, this is a form of putting them on the defensive, this is a way of indeed showing that there is lack of respect for women in our Western society. I wish our society were able equally to recognize that there is gigantic exploitation right here in our Western society.

Belarusian President Orders Release Of Political Prisoner

Andrey Klimau following his unexpected release

A Belarusian opposition figure jailed for criticizing the president and fomenting rebellion against the government has been set free by a surprise decree from President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reports.

Former legislator Andrey Klimau was released from prison on February 15, just six months into a two-year sentence.

Speaking to journalists in Minsk a day after leaving a prison in the Homel region, Klimau said that Lukashenka's February 11 decree ordering his release came as "a complete surprise." He said his hopes for freedom had been dashed by Lukashenka's recent statement that "the issue of political prisoners in Belarus is closed," suggesting that no new amnesties could be expected.

Western governments and international rights groups consistently rank Belarus among the world's worst rights offenders, and the European Union lists the freeing of political prisoners among its chief demands to normalize strained relations with Minsk.

Klimau was sentenced in August to two years in prison for insulting the president and calling for revolution in an article posted on the Internet.

Klimau, who was a legislator in the Supreme Soviet of Belarus in 1995-96, had served two jail stints before his most recent prison term. He spent four years in prison after receiving a six-year sentence in February 1998 on convictions for embezzlement and forgery linked to a construction company he ran; he was then sentenced in June 2005 to 18 months of "restricted freedom" over his role in organizing an opposition demonstration in Minsk.

Political Prisoners

Klimau is regarded in Western countries as a victim of persecution for his political activities, as are two other high-profile prisoners: former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin and journalist Alyaksandr Zdzvizhkou.

Upon his release, Klimau expressed hope that Kazulin and Zdzvizhkou would also be freed soon.

Kazulin, who ran in the March 2006 presidential election, was arrested during antigovernment demonstrations that followed the polls and was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for organizing events that disturbed the public order.

On February 15, Lukashenka said that he had offered Kazulin a temporary release from prison so that he could accompany his wife, Iryna, who is suffering from cancer, to Germany for medical treatment. He said he had made the offer following EU officials' appeals for clemency for Kazulin but that the prisoner had refused to leave prison.

Kazulin's daughter, Volha, denied that her father had turned down any offer for a temporary release. She added that if Lukashenka had in fact made such an offer, the objective could only have been to expel Kazulin from Belarus. "Our father will never leave the country in any case," she said.

Iranian Women's Activist Wins Human Rights Award

By Farangis Najibullah

Parvin Ardalan's movement has become popular with young women

Parvin Ardalan, a leading Iranian women's rights activist, has won the Olof Palme Prize for her work and commitment to human rights.

Ardalan is a founder and active member of the One Million Signatures Campaign, a movement that aims to promote equal rights for women in Iranian society.

The $75,000 prize is named for former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme and is awarded annually for "outstanding achievements" by those who actively promote peace, equality, and security.

Ardalan's friends say she has dedicated her adult life to fighting for women's issues. Ardalan was one of the first members of the Women's Cultural Center, the first-ever Iranian nongovernmental organization to advocate women's rights.

The 37-year-old, Tehran-based journalist and author has previously worked for women's publications such as "Zanestan" and "The Feminist Tribune of Iran" before both of those online magazines -- as well as "Women's Cultural Center" -- were shut down by Iranian authorities in 2007.

Ardalan, who is currently an editor of "Change for Equality," contributes to many publications in Iran -- including the most influential women's magazine, "Zanan," which was suspended last month for allegedly "painting a gloomy picture" of Iran.

In her writings, Ardalan focuses on women's issues and the challenges that Iranian women face in their everyday lives.

Ardalan became an active supporter of women's rights when the One Million Signatures Campaign was set up by Iranian feminists in August 2006.

The campaign members aim to change what they call "discriminatory laws against women," such as different inheritance and child custody rights for women and men as well as unequal rights after a divorce.

One Million Signatures

To realize these changes, Parvin and other members of the feminist movement have been trying to collect 1 million signatures from Iranians to urge the country's parliament to change the "discriminatory laws."

Ardalan told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that the campaign members are not expecting that their campaign will lead to changes in the discriminatory laws any time soon. But she added that "so far we have succeeded in changing Iranian people's attitude toward such laws."

"We haven't achieved too many results. But we were able to give this issue a bigger profile in society, and succeeded in bringing the society's attention -- both men and women's attention -- to the fact that promoting women's rights could well be a part of the wider promotion of democratic values," Ardalan said.

Members of the campaign and other supporters -- most of them young women in their 20s -- spread their message through the Internet and print media as well as in face to face meetings with people all over the country -- and it comes with a heavy price for the feminists.

The campaign claims it is a social movement that has "nothing against religion or the Iranian political system."

Yet at least 40 of its members have been detained by the police and intelligence services, and most of them have been charged with spreading propaganda against the state.

Maryam Khosenkhah and Jelveh Javaheri are among the campaign members who have been arrested in Tehran since October 2007. They have been subsequently released on large bails and are still awaiting a court decision.

Iranian intelligence services persecute the campaign supporters all over the country. Two young feminists, Ronak Safarzadeh and Hana Abdi, were arrested last fall by the local office of the Intelligence and Security Ministry in Kurdistan Province. They are still in prison.

Parvin Ardalan says that during such a difficult period --when women's rights activists are being persecuted and feminist publications are being shut down in Iran -- she believes that the Olof Palme Award will give the One Million Signatures Campaign greater recognition and provide hope to its activists inside Iran and its supporters outside the country.

(Radio Farda correspondent Farin Assemi contributed to this report.)

Does Iran's Government Fear Educated Women?

By Iraj Gorgin

Iranian female university students in Tehran (file photo)

Who’s afraid of girls? The Iranian government, it seems. Recent years have seen a dramatic rise in the number of Iranian girls enrolling in universities and other institutions of higher education. While many governments would see this as a blessing worth boasting about, that's not the case in Iran.

In a report to the administration of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s Research Center of the Majlis (parliament) recently called the trend of more girls going to universities "alarming" and urged the government to stop it.

"With the door of opportunity closed to most young girls, with all the control their families and others exert over them, young women are mostly going after knowledge and science to gain freedom and human dignity."

'Worrisome' Trend

The research center documented what it called a worrisome rise in the number of females to enroll in universities and other centers of higher education. The report said that over the last two decades there’s been a 23 percent increase in the number of girls taking university entrance exams, with the number of girls who passed the tests nearly doubling -- to 65 percent -- over the same period.

The influential research center -- which has decision-making powers in both parliament as well as in government agencies -- also warned that the rise in female students could eventually lead to "social disparity and economic and cultural imbalances between men and women."

But others see society as the problem, not women's desire to seek higher education.

"If such concern [about more women going to universities] is being expressed, then it’s because our society is not ready to accept that a woman could be more educated than a man," said Elahe Hejazi, a university professor in Tehran. She tells RFE/RL’s Radio Farda that the report reflects both traditional gender discrimination as well as despair among young males about their prospects in life. She calls it a "cultural problem."

"Our culture is preserved in its traditional form, but the more important problem in our society is that boys have no motivation for continuing their education," she said.

Detrimental Or Good?

The report says the rise in female students has created other concerns, such as "securing university dorms and maintaining their [girls] physical security in confronting possible social perils." Another problem, according to the report, is economic, "such as the possibility that expenses will be underused for specialized skills, as well as a change in the gender of the workforce."

The center's report also warns about a detrimental affect on families and urges officials to swiftly find a solution to the "disproportion between the number of men and women" in Iran’s universities.

Shahla Shafigh, an Iranian-born women’s rights activist in Paris, tells Radio Farda that she believes the opposition to female students is ideological.

"With the door of opportunity closed to most young girls, with all the control their families and others exert over them, young women are mostly going after knowledge and science to gain freedom and human dignity," Shafigh says. "And this is a good thing to happen in a country."

But what steps the government might take in regards to the situation is unclear.

Last year, after reports that the government might limit female enrollment in entrance exams, women’s rights activists in Iran expressed concern. The government later denied that there had ever been any such plans.

But there are signs the government intends to act on the gender issue, including recent media reports suggesting there could be a change in textbooks based on "gender differentiation."

Last week, Zohre Tabibzadeh Nouri, who runs the government's office of Women’s Participation, told reporters in Tehran that "gender discrimination" will be implemented in certain sectors of the workforce. She added that the government must help women attain the kind of education and expertise suitable for them.

(Fereidoun Zarnegar of Radio Farda contributed to this report.)

Russia's Medvedev No Democratic Alternative

By RFE/RL analyst Robert Coalson
It isn't hard to find examples of Russian First Deputy Prime Minister and all-but-certain presidential successor Dmitry Medvedev making sweeping affirmations of liberal values.

"Today we are building new institutions based on the fundamental principles of full democracy," Medvedev told the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2007, making a point of speaking this paragraph of his speech in English. "This democracy requires no additional definition. This democracy is effective and is based on the principles of the market economy, supremacy of the law, and government that is accountable to the rest of society. We are fully aware that no undemocratic country has ever become truly prosperous, and this for the simple reason that it is better to have freedom than not to have it."

For those who missed the message the first time around, this excerpt is featured prominently at the top of the English-language page of Medvedev's campaign website ( So, too, is a translated version of a July 2007 interview with "Ekspert," in which Medvedev opines that "adding words to further define the term 'democracy' creates an odd aftertaste and gives rise to the thought that perhaps what is meant is some kind of different, unconventional democracy."

Break With Tradition?

Observers often note that Medvedev's advocacy of a democracy that "requires no additional definition" would seem to be a rejection of the semiofficial ideology of "sovereign democracy" that is the brainchild of President Vladimir Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov, and that is seen as the philosophical justification for the rapid-fire consolidation of government power within Putin’s power vertical.

When Medvedev was anointed as Putin’s successor in January, many were cautiously optimistic that a new political trend could be in the offing, although no one believed the heir would stray far from Putin’s line. The naming of the relatively liberal technocrat was welcomed as a favorable alternative to silovik Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov or other hard-line presidential also-rans. headlined its coverage of Medvedev's christening simply: "100 Times Better Than Ivanov.”

Leaders of the opposition Union of Rightist Forces were harshly critical of the Byzantine way in which Medvedev is being brought to power, but offered relatively little criticism of the man himself.

Medvedev won plaudits again last month with his first major campaign event, a speech before Kremlin-friendly civil-society activists. During that address, Medvedev -- a lawyer by training -- lamented Russia's tradition of "legal nihilism," a curse that "goes back to the dawn of time in Russia." Medvedev noted that Russia exceeds all European countries in terms of "disregard for the law," both on the part of citizens and of officials.

However, he offered no solutions to the problem, saying merely, "We need to understand clearly: if we want to become a civilized state, first of all we need to become a lawful one." In a subsequent speech to the Association of Lawyers of Russia, Medvedev said the key to overcoming legal nihilism lies in organizing "a system of legal education that reaches out to schools, universities, and the media, getting them all involved." In the speech to civil-society advocates, he paid lip service to the idea of "a powerful and independent media," but speaking to the lawyers he said a key component of his legal-education system will be a new state-controlled television channel, Law TV.

Product Of The System

Expanding the state media sector to combat legal nihilism shows a distinct lack of imagination that could ultimately doom Medvedev's efforts, even if he is sincere. Fundamentally, however, there's good reason to believe he's not. Medvedev was right to note in his speech to civil-society activists that legal nihilism is a product of deep-seated public cynicism, a cynicism that has been cultivated by centuries of inept, closed, and unaccountable government. But he seems unwilling or unable to accept that he has now become a key component of that unaccountable system, and a key beneficiary of it. As a result, his declarations -- to the extent that anyone pays attention to them in the context of a political system where everything is predetermined -- merely add to the public's distrust.

In democratic systems where the electorate bestows legitimacy on the elected, politicians must state their positions publicly before they are elected. Medvedev, however, is taking a different tack, playing by the rules of a corrupted system. He has declined to participate in election debates. He has failed to speak out against the state media, which are giving him exponentially more coverage than they are granting his opponents. He has watched silently as rigged election laws have been used to sideline former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and others who sought to participate in the presidential election. He has said nothing as opposition figures have been harassed and jailed and rallies violently broken up. He has, in short, accepted the advantages of an undemocratic, nihilistic system as if they were his due.

Of course, it is too much to expect that, prior to assuming power, Medvedev would break with the current system, even if he were secretly bent on, as he said in Davos, "building new institutions based on the fundamental principles of full democracy." But he has clearly passed on many opportunities to make forceful declarations in favor of those principles.

And there are signs that the public, although resigned to Medvedev's ascendancy and pleased with the prospect of continued stability, is not convinced by his democratic pronouncements. A poll last month asked voters to characterize Medvedev. About 40 percent of respondents mentioned his "intellect," while the same number touted his "professionalism." Just 11 percent, however, cited his "honesty."