Troubling Questions for Putin’s Russia

By Robert J. Meth and Yosef I. Abramowitz

Published March 26, 2004, issue of March 26, 2004.
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With his landslide victory in last week’s presidential elections Russian President Vladimir Putin has tightened his already firm grip on the reins of power. Putin took more than 70% of the vote and faced no serious opposition.

Putin’s margin of victory reflects his widespread popularity, fueled by an economic rebound and the perception that he has brought Russia out of its post-Soviet turmoil. But the election also raises troubling questions about the fate of democracy in Russia and with it the future of the country’s Jewish community.

Since Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin four years ago, the Kremlin has overseen or allowed the takeover of all independent television networks and a number of the newspapers; prosecuted a succession of business moguls, or “oligarchs,” singling out political opponents; curtailed the ability of independent groups to organize, mobilize and secure funding from abroad; and either tolerated or encouraged the intimidation of minority communities, including efforts to handpick the leaders of Russian Jewry.

Today, no credible political opposition remains in Russia. Whether in the media, politics, big business or the Jewish community, most independent voices have either been silenced or quickly learned to anticipate and honor the Kremlin’s desires. Last week’s election was criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe as having “reflected a lack of a democratic culture, accountability and responsibility.”

President Bush has made the promotion of democracy a central theme in American foreign policy. As Secretary of State Colin Powell told Fox News, “Russians have to understand that to have full democracy of the kind that the international community will recognize, you’ve got to let candidates have all access to the media that the president has.”

American calls for greater Russian democracy must not be set aside, even as we cooperate with the Kremlin on issues such as the Middle East, energy and counter-terrorism. If the United States allows democracy to be undermined in Russia, leaders of neighboring states such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan — where the potential for reform is palpable — will discount Washington’s calls for democratization.

Certainly, Putin has taken a number of positive steps as well, including outreach to the Jewish community. He has spoken out against antisemitism, visited synagogues and worked to improve relations with Israel. Even as much of Russian society and the organized Jewish community have fallen under the Kremlin’s shadow, this has not adversely affected Jews’ freedom of worship, ability to run schools and welfare institutions or right to emigrate. But we know from experience that while the protection of a strong central government or powerful leader can ensure Jewish safety for a time, ultimately Jews are safest and most secure in a free and open society.

There is reason to fear, however, that Russia is moving in the opposite direction. Take, for example, the December 2003 elections to the Russian parliament, or Duma. Pro-Kremlin parties won a “super majority” in the Duma elections, sufficient to enable Putin’s backers to amend the constitution. Reformist and liberal parties failed to win a single seat in the Duma.

The result is that there is no faction in the Duma pushing for democratic reforms. Moreover, the only opposition voices are communists and nationalists, who are more opposed to an open society than the Kremlin itself.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, whose party won 12% of the vote for parliament, signed a 1998 statement claiming that “the spread of Zionism in the state government in Russia is one of the reasons for the current catastrophic condition of the country, the mass impoverishment and the process of extinction.” Nationalist leaders in parliament include the antisemitic firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose inaptly named Liberal Democratic Party won 9% of the December vote, and a bevy of independent racists whose shared pastime is blaming Jews and the West for Russia’s failings.

As long as Putin is president, there is little reason to fear that Jews or Jewish institutions will become more vulnerable to attacks. But Putin will not remain in power forever. Assuming that the new pro-Kremlin Duma majority does not amend the constitution for a third Putin term, we should worry about the kind of legacy he will leave behind upon his anticipated retirement in 2008. If the only Duma factions not under Putin’s direct control are thick with nationalists, communists and antisemites, there is a danger that Russians hungry for change will turn to these enemies of Western-style democracy.

Putin has pledged to use his overwhelming mandate to push through democratic reforms. Speaking to journalists following his landslide victory, he vowed: “I promise you that the democratic achievements of our people will be ensured and guaranteed. We will not rest at what has been achieved, we will strengthen the multiparty system. We will strengthen civil society and do everything to ensure freedom for the mass media.” (In a potentially positive sign, NTV, one of the now-government-controlled Russian TV networks, reported on the OSCE criticism of the presidential election.)

We should hold Putin to his word. Otherwise, Russia could easily squander its historic potential for free enterprise, political debate and religious pluralism. Those of us who care about Russia and its Jewish community must not allow this to happen. The stakes are too high for Jews and other Russians, and for the region as a whole.

Robert J. Meth is chairman of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia. Yosef I. Abramowitz is president of UCSJ: Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union.

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