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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Russia: A Culture of Mendacity

The brilliant Robert Coalson, writing for Radio Free Europe:

Although there has been considerable talk in recent months about possible political, constitutional, or economic crises in Russia, only distinguished human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov has drawn attention to a crisis that is already under way: Russia's "shameful moral crisis."

In a largely ignored open letter to President Vladimir Putin published shortly before the March 2 presidential election, the former Soviet-era political prisoner and heir to Andrei Sakharov condemned the culture of lies that the government has fostered in its bid to "manage" Russian democracy. [LR: We, of course, didn't ignore it, we published it a few days after it was released.]

Kovalyov particularly had in view official statements and court rulings that the December 2007 Duma elections and the presidential campaign were open, fair, and democratic. But he also referred to the wider culture that has blossomed under Putin -- the creation of managed political parties that pretend to be an opposition, the fostering of Kremlin-sponsored nongovernmental organizations that take funding and attention from their problematic counterparts, the "spontaneous" appearance of grassroots movements such as For Putin! that purport to be groundswells, and so on and so on.

Kovalyov emphasized the "corrupting force" of the lies that Russia's leaders "are incapable of rejecting." He notes that no "remotely literate citizen" believes these lies, including even the staunchest supporters of Putin and the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party.

Open Deception

Kovalyov, addressing the leadership, speaks of a "paradoxical change" in the relationship between the public and the ruling elite. "You lie, your listeners know this and you know that they don't believe you...and they also know that you know they don't believe you. Everybody knows everything. The very lie no longer aspires to deceive anyone. From being a means of fooling people it has for some reason turned into an everyday way of life, a customary and obligatory rule for living."

"The customary lies of leaders always generate and cultivate cynicism in society and cannot achieve anything else," Kovalyov declared. "And gradually going back by the same path we came on is almost impossible, since you are doomed to lie." He said that, in such a culture, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev's statements about "freedom being better than non-freedom" and the need for independent media can only be taken as "a continuation of your untruth," rebounding against the hard wall of the public's cynicism.

Russia, of course, has had unaccountable government for more than 1,000 years and the Soviet era accustomed the public to incredulity. Although Putin's Russia is not a reincarnation of the Soviet Union, it has succeeded in reestablishing this pernicious aspect of its political culture, making it arguably worse by stripping it of an ideological framework that at least offered some clues for interpretation.

Now, when Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov calls Russia's electoral system the most open and transparent system in the world, it cannot be understood in any other way than as Kovalyov said -- "the very lie that no longer aspires to deceive anyone."

For anyone inside such a culture, therefore, any statement becomes the subject of analysis rather than a furtherance of discord. Why is he saying this, the listener asks. And why now? And for whom? This is not a new development of the Putin era, but Putin has certainly done nothing to roll this culture back. Instead, he has manipulated it, benefited from it, fostered it, and -- in Kovalyov's opinion -- all but ensured that there is no road back for Russia.

The Yabloko Case

On March 10, Putin held a rare, closed-door meeting with Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky. Very little has been said about the content of those discussions, with even the usually open and accessible Yavlinsky keeping mum. Yavlinsky did say, however, that he briefed Putin on the case of Yabloko official Maksim Reznik, who was arrested on March 3 on charges -- assaulting a police officer -- that he claims are politically motivated.

Reznik has exposed falsification of the presidential election results, organized opposition March of Dissent rallies, and is a leading organizer of a conference later this month at which the country's liberals plan to discuss the formation of a genuine, liberal opposition front. Yavlinsky said Putin promised "to look into the case," implying strongly that Putin gave him the impression that he had not heard of the matter before.

But in Russia's current culture, how are we to understand Putin's promise? The skeptical observer could be excused for speculating that Reznik was essentially being held as a hostage in some political game, perhaps one aimed at disrupting or discrediting the upcoming liberal conference. (One might logically assume that Yavlinsky's silence about the meeting is connected to his desire to secure Reznik's release.)

Russia's political culture is rife with similar examples: Early in Putin's tenure, when oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky refused to sign over his media properties to the state, he was thrown in prison until he complied. More recently, former Yukos Vice President Vasily Aleksanyan, who has spent some two years in pretrial detention under abominable conditions, was denied medical treatment for AIDS and serious related complications. (After massive domestic and international outcry, he was eventually moved to a medical clinic for treatment, but remains in custody.) Lawyers involved in the Yukos cases have said they believe Aleksanyan's treatment was an attempt to pressure the defense in other cases, including new charges pending against former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his former partner, Platon Lebedev.

Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak was arrested on vague corruption charges in November, and many analysts have concluded the case is a bid by siloviki in the administration to put pressure on Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin. All of these cases are landmarks -- and not the only ones -- in what Medvedev himself has decried (whether earnestly or rhetorically) as Russia's appalling culture of "legal nihilism."

Politics Of Intrigue

And that is not the end of the possible speculation around Yavlinsky's meeting with Putin and the Reznik case. Political analyst Valery Ostrovsky told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that it doesn't make sense for the Kremlin to try to disrupt the liberal conference. "It could lead to a unification of the democrats that would then be convenient for the Kremlin to control," he said. "But Grigory Yavlinsky, on the other hand, doesn't need such a unification. And removing Reznik, the conference organizer, from the political arena might even be convenient for [Yavlinsky]. It can't be excluded that [Reznik] was set up by his own people, who arranged a provocation with the police."

This is the sort of character assassination and innuendo that is the direct result of the country's cynical culture of political lies. As Kovalyov wrote: "Cynicism is cowardice, the flight from burning problems and hard-hitting discussion. It is the lowest pragmatism, petty time-serving teetering on the verge of baseness, or already toppled over the edge. It is intrigue trumping competition, and a rejection of moral taboos." And as he concluded, it is hard to see a road out of such a situation.

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