As Bush and Putin meet in St. Petersburg for the G-8 summit, there's a lot of talk in the US media about Russia's backsliding on democracy. Of course, Russia isn't on a path to democracy. Putin has reasserted state control over Russian television, jailed a leading oligarch and may well try to alter the Russian constitution so he can remain President for a third term beginning in 2008. But as scholars and writers with a sense of history have argued -- including (my husband) Stephen Cohen in a recent cover story in The Nation and Anatol Lieven in a Los Angeles Times op-ed -- de-democratization began not under Putin but under Boris Yeltsin. As Lieven explains, "The 'democracy' that Putin has allegedly overthrown was, in fact, not a real democracy at all, but a pseudo-democracy ruled over by corrupt and brutal oligarchical clans." Furthermore, he notes, " During the 1990s, the administration of Boris Yeltsin, under the sway of oligarchs and the liberal elites, rigged elections, repressed the opposition and launched a bloody and unnecessary war in Chechnya--all with the support of Washington."
But don't ask that champion of democracy, civil liberties and human rights Dick Cheney to get his history right. Instead, in May, Cheney used his shotgun approach and traveled through the former Soviet Union hectoring Russia's government for its anti-democratic ways. As William Fisher noted at the time, in a sharp commentary on Truthout.com, it was "truly grotesque" that Cheney would be "lecturing anyone about democracy and human rights." As Fisher, who worked for the US State Department and USAID for thirty years, put it, " [Cheney} has dishonored these core American values in his own country...Could there be anyone less credible on subjects like democratic reform and open government?"
Instead of counter-productive lectures, perhaps we should listen more carefully to former Russian dissidents like Boris Kagarlitsky. I've known Kagarlitsky for more than twenty five years. He is a man of integrity, a man of the democratic left, who was imprisoned in the Brezhnev years for samizdat literature and speaking his mind. In May, I asked him what he made of U.S. criticism of Russia's political landscape. Here is Boris's brief and sharp reply.
"Russia doesn't look like a model democracy, but United States under current administration doesn't look so either. Every time American government spoke about exporting democracy somewhere this ended up in disaster, whether it was in Vietnam or in Latin America. We will solve our problems ourselves without George Bush or Dick Cheney. And people who organise elections in Siberia don't need lectures from those who organized elections in Florida... All these technologies are internationally known."Boris Kagarlitsky