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The Economist’s Editorial in JRL #8112

12.03.2004 11:10

Johnson’s Russia List #8113. 12 March 2004

In JRL#8112 you published the editorial from The Economist (UK): “How to check Vladimir Putin. What the West should be doing about Russia”. The editorial makes a very important mistake that we should not let go without a discussion. Here is what the editorial says:

So what to do? [About Russia not being democratic enough - MM] It is good that western leaders have stopped pretending that Russia is a free democracy. But nagging at summits counts for little. Russia does, however, want more concrete things, such as easier visas. Linking unrelated issues is a standard Russian negotiating tactic that can also be used in reverse. So the West should make concessions only in return for changes that make Russia more pluralist.

In other words, deny visas for ordinary Russians until Putin makes Russia more democratic. First, Putin himself will get his visa, and as the authors of this editorial would agree, Putin cares little about inconveniencing ordinary Russians. So, this measure would not be effective. But it would also be hugely counterproductive. Traveling abroad allows ordinary Russians to see the advantages of democracy and market economy with their own eyes, it helps them to feel more respected, and gives them an opportunity to gain friends and to establish useful business relationships. Having returned from their trips, these Russians would demand the respect they felt abroad: “in Austria, roads are not potholed, and traffic police do not take bribes”. For the businessmen, such trips may help to gain financial independence and professional success - the only true foundations of democracy.

Thus, the solution is very opposite to what The Economist proposes: more travel to the West, more opportunities to live, work, and study there - this is what we need to make Russia more democratic. In fact, if advanced western nations were hosting a million of Russians every year from 1991 till today, we would have had true democracy and market economy in Russia right now.

The editorial’s logic is as follows: it is Putin’s duty to “give” democracy to people. Well, I think that it is the people who should value democracy, demand it, defend it, promote it, and be an active part of it. I am amazed at the idea that if you give a pen to a monkey it will immediately start to write, and therefore those who fail to supply a monkey with a pen are the only ones that could be blamed for the fact that some monkeys are not yet fully literate (hope you admire my political correctness).

Please tell me where did this Stalinist idea of “imposition from above” originate? You take a big hall in Iraq, you fly in a few English-speaking Iraqi exiles, you put the TV cameras in, you make these people sign a “Constitution” - and you are done! Dear Iraq, welcome to the family of democratic nations! Again, a democracy is a state that is populated by people that are aware of their creative rights and have a desire and an opportunity to use them. People that parade the streets flagellating themselves with whips made out of bicycle chains may have a slightly different set of values than democracy.

And then the editorial goes into a different direction and actually says the following:

America’s spending on pro-democracy programmes is, proportionately, lower in Russia than it is in Georgia or Ukraine, where civil society flourishes by comparison.

First of all, I reside in Kiev, Ukraine where civil society indeed flourishes in comparison to every cemetery you care to name. The esteemed editors may want to know that non-alcoholic beer makes one less likely to make embarrassing mistakes. But this was not my point. I just want JRL readers to admire the nice touch of imperialism that is subtly present in this quote. You see, where America’s spending on pro-democracy programmes is large, people have a flourishing democracy, but should America cut spending on it pro-democracy programmes, well, people would have nothing better to do than to pick their noses waiting for America to resume funding for its pro-democracy programmes.

In reality, America’s pro-democracy programmes have not been all that effective. In Russia, they taught people to firmly associate democracy with Chubais and his “loans-for-shares” scheme.

Please consider the short bio of Eugene Shvidler, 39, US citizen and a Jew, who, according to the Forbes Magazine, has a net worth of $1.9B and is the 293rd richest person in the world, slightly wealthier than Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Here it is, taken from the Forbes Magazine:

President of Sibneft, Russia’s fifth-largest oil company. Shvidler trained as an oil engineer in Moscow, received an M.B.A. from New York’s Fordham University, then worked for Deloitte & Touche; became a U.S. citizen. His career took off when he teamed up with Roman Abramovich and established Runicom S.A., a Switzerland-based oil trading firm. In 1995 the men partnered with Boris Berezovsky to gain control of oil giant Sibneft; became president of the company in 1998; together with Abramovich and some other partners, he has pooled his oil, aluminum, timber and industrial assets in a British-based holding company called Millhouse Capital. Last year played a key role in blocking merger of Sibneft with its larger Russian rival Yukos, after top Yukos shareholder Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested.

This short sketch of an eight-year path from an MBA to a billionaire (having done nothing at all but to sign a few papers) is all that the Russians need to know about US-endorsed version of “democracy” and a good explanation as to why Putin is popular with the Russians and unpopular with The Economist.

The Economist advocates spending more money on America’s Freedom Support Act, but I don’t think it will help: what could help, a little bit but it still counts, is The Economist’s editorial entitled “We are terribly sorry”.

Matthew Maly
Author of a democracy textbook for people with Soviet background, How to Make Russia a Normal Country (Moscow 2000; St. Petersburg 2002) that did not receive a cent of funding from the Freedom Support Act, or of from anywhere else. http://matthew-maly.ru

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