Recently we have witnessed a flurry of high-profile and contradictory statements on the Russian state. In a role reversal, Russia’s leaders have been abnormally candid while several prominent western politicians and pundits have lavished undeserved praise.
Russian president Dmitri Medvedev was bold enough last week to state that democracy is irrelevant to the Group of Eight leading nations. It is sad to see that some of Europe’s leaders seem to agree with him. He also accidentally told the truth by saying that while political competition could be a good thing, it must be “competition correctly built”, a phrase of which George Orwell would have been proud.
Despite broad acknowledgement that our March presidential elections were neither free nor fair, Terry Davis, the Council of Europe secretary-general, recently expressed his admiration for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Medvedev. His comments about “growth” and “progress” make it clear that, to the council, the importance of liberty and democracy in Russia is inversely correlated to the prices of oil and gas. Such behaviour helps legitimise fraudulent elections and the dictatorial regime that runs them.
It is a pity for Robert Mugabe Zimbabwe does not enjoy a surplus of oil and natural gas. Without those assets his election victory is denounced as a sham and nations around the world call for him to be ousted. At this week’s G8 summit, George W. Bush, US president, denounced Mr Mugabe while sitting next to Mr Medvedev, whose hold on power is similarly counterfeit. The Russian security services’ methods are more subtle than machetes but our democracy is no more real than Zimbabwe’s. The European fantasy appears to be that oil revenue and designer boutiques will magically turn Russia into a real democracy. Oil wealth is nearly always a curse on human rights, not a blessing. Louis Vuitton and Cartier are not going to do the job that the so-called leaders of the free world have abdicated.
In a recent opinion article, Henry Kissinger asked that the US “give Russia some space”. Space to create a new class of political prisoners, to loot the country, to bully our neighbours? Is that what brought down the Berlin Wall and ended the cold war? Is it only my dictionary that fails to distinguish between “appeasement” and Mr Kissinger’s use of the word “engagement”?
After eight years of being given plenty of space, Mr Putin and his team of well-trained oligarchs have assembled an efficient machine to move the wealth from every corner of Russia into private hands. While I hope and believe that the people of Russia are capable of standing up for our rights, it is unhelpful to our cause when the west provides the Putin regime with democratic credentials or acts as though democracy is, to use Mr Medvedev’s word, irrelevant.
Instead of listening to those who are eager to stay in the good graces of the Kremlin, listen to Russia’s leaders after eight years of Mr Putin’s total control, years in which the price of oil rose 700 per cent. They speak with the candour of impunity. Mr Medvedev has said the biggest problems facing Russia are “endemic corruption and a dysfunctional legal system”. Just days ago finance minister Alexei Kudrin shared the thought that “a growth spurt in the economy of central Russia would lead to the collapse of the railway and transportation infrastructure”. These statements do not come from opposition “extremists” such as myself. (“Extremist” being the tried-and-true label of choice for anyone who disagrees with the regime.)
One glance at the headlines is enough to separate western fantasies from Russian reality. Savva Terentiev, a musician from Syktyvkar, 1,500 km north of Moscow, just received a one-year suspended sentence for a sarcastic blog post criticising the local police. The Russian security matrix is moving into the virtual world.
Or take this note about our vaunted new middle class. An EU-Russia Centre survey has found that 50 per cent of Russia’s best-educated and most prosperous citizens would emigrate if they could. The top reasons were instability and danger from law enforcement. Some 83 per cent said they did not believe they had the ability to influence the political direction of the country. It seems I am not the only one who would like to live in the Russia of which Mr Davis and Mr Kissinger speak so fondly. It is a shame it does not exist.
The writer is leader of the Other Russia pro-democracy coalition and a former world chess champion.