Vladimir Putin may or may not be dismantling Yeltsinism. But he is not dismantling 'democracy', for no such system existed in Russia before his accession to power. After a decade of multiparty elections, neither the rich nor the powerful seem to take the slightest interest in the well-being of the electorate, even though a dim regard for public support may have inspired authorities to escalate the conflict in Chechnya and throttle critics in the press. That the Duma's switch from pointless opposition under Yeltsin to opportunistic servility under Putin has made little difference to the average Russian voter illustrates the immateriality of democratic rites and symbols to the everyday struggle for survival. A similar odour of irrelevance clings to the dying freedom of the press, which, although boisterous and engaging under Yeltsin, was also commonly perceived as merely another weapon in the arsenal of rival financial-industrial groups. Even freedom of movement can appear to be useful primarily to a few mysteriously enriched Russians seeking periodically to escape their country and stash plundered assets in sanctuaries abroad. Since basic rights patently serve the interests of a few without, as is equally plain, improving the lives of the many, it is not surprising that Russia's shaky liberalism, now under siege, finds few defenders inside the country.
LRB 19 April 2001 | PDF Download