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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Censoring Nemstov, Destroying the Nation

Richard Lourie, writing in the Moscow Times:

In February, Boris Nemtsov published a white paper on the Vladimir Putin years that he considered so inflammatory that he suspended his membership in Union of Right Forces, the party he co-founded, to spare it the Kremlin's ire. Nemtsov, the former boy-wonder governor of Nizhny Novgorod and first deputy prime minister in 1997 and 1998, wrote the 75-page essay with Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister, in 2002.

All Russian bookstores have reportedly refused to carry the book, whose title has been variously translated as "Putin: The Results" and "Putin: The Bottom Line." It is available in Russian and English on the blog of La Russophobe.

After a one-paragraph review of Russia's success -- "true but only the lesser part of the truth" -- the authors launch into an unremitting assault on the crimes, follies and failures of the Putin administration. The central failure was not using the oil windfall to modernize the country's economy, army, health care, education and infrastructure.

Authoritarianism only brought corruption on a colossal scale -- $300 billion a year. Transparency International ranks Russia 143rd on its Corruption Perceptions Index, along with Gambia and Togo. The authors' analysis of the larceny under Putin is sharp, detailed and convincing. They do not hesitate to call his a "criminal system of government."

Meanwhile Russia is dying out. Men can expect to live less than 59 years ("I'm officially dead," a Russian friend said to me on turning 60). The annual numbers are bad -- car accidents (33,000), murder (30,000) and suicide (57,000). Drinking, smoking, poor diet and the lamentable health care system polish off even more.

The justice system obeys the Kremlin, causing "the collapse of the idea of the supremacy of the law" (never very widespread in Russia if the truth be told). The Constitution has been "trampled into the dust." The infrastructure is in dire straights, endangering economic progress (Finland has more paved road).

The report's own weakness lies in its off-putting tone and its too-general suggestions. The tone is too dark, every problem is a crisis. Understatement was always alien to the intelligentsia.

The report offers very little in the way of practical suggestions. Something more than exhortations can reasonably be expected from men with their political experience. How to build a decent "successful, European" Russia is, they say, "perfectly clear. First and foremost, the police state has to be dismantled and human dignity returned to the people." You could hardly think of a more unobjectionable statement, except perhaps to the people running the police state in question.

They authors do, however, at times propose useful solutions to pressing problems. For example, they point out that it makes more sense to encourage middle-class people to have more children by writing down mortgage debt at government expense than to encourage the "lumpen proletariats" to reproduce by offering cash awards to "hero mothers" who produce large numbers of offspring.

The authors' list of Russia's problems contains no great surprises. And just as we can guess pretty much in advance what a New York liberal will think of U.S. President George W. Bush, we can do the same for what a Moscow liberal will think of Putin. But there is one subject where the authors came up with some surprising, even shocking conclusions -- the fear of China. They accuse Putin of conducting "capitulatory" policies -- arming the enemy and making "major territorial concessions." In time, China will demand much more, claiming that tsarist treaties were unequal and unjust.

"China represents a real threat to our country," they say, calling Putin a "Chinese agent of influence." I have heard similar sentiments from highly placed political figures with whom Nemtsov and Milov would otherwise have nothing in common. Perhaps in the absence of ideology all that can unite Russia now is love of money and fear of China.

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