Plumb Lines

March 25, 2009

RE: Democracy in Russia?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 6:40 pm

Keith ended his recent post with a question for me:

Effective self-rule has cultural prerequisites. Are contemporary Russians, generally speaking, free enough from the cynicism, cruelty, and selfishness encouraged by communism to avoid the temptation to corruption on a massive scale?

Russians have experienced less than twenty years living since the fall of the Soviet Union. The first eight were comparable to the Wild West. The last ten, 1999-2009,  were a little better. They have been marked by massive growth in the private sector and a turn towards some standards of accountability in government. Yet corruption is still rampant. At one briefing I attended, the expert in the room declared that corporations and the government, awash in oil revenues in 2008, were “making money faster than they could steal it.”

I generally have hope for Russia. As the Soviet-trained managers are rotated out of power by the business cycle, and the Kremlin replaces old politicians with fresh faces, I feel petty abuse of power will wane. The market economy with its demands of relatively honest shareholders’ reports precludes the Soviet practice of shantage, or lying about production. And the government has cracked down on the oligarchs, the ultra-rich businessmen who came about their fortunes through less-than-honest means.

One area of its anti-corruption campaign is palpable. The government is currently working on initiatives to make the varying branches of police more professional. When I was first here in 2005 we were routinely warned of policemen stopping you for a shake down. Not so anymore. If you even do get pulled aside they often give you a sheepish grin, apologize for bothering you, and hand your documents back, as if they were embarrassed to even trouble a foreigner. (They mostly concern themselves with looking for illegal immigrants by racially profiling men with darker features.)

What the Times article indicated to me today was more a form of Soviet nostalgia than a resurgence of local democracy. The druzhiniki were a method by which the  Soviet state incorporated citizens into its massive apparatus. Pensioners got to relive their days as soldiers or workers during the Great Patriotic War (WWII) again, while students  got to act like they were in the army without getting their hands dirty. The benefits available to druzhiniki–free public transportation, the right to collect compensation for being injured on patrol–smacks of the typical Soviet rewards for such types of incidental public labor.

Quite the opposite from a trustworthy police force, they turned some citizens into the police for other citizens. After all, regular citizens are not likely to stop a real crime.  Hooliganism, maybe, but “hooliganism” in Russian has a broader meaning than it does in English. In the Soviet era it could mean kids hanging out on a park bench. But no, I don’t fear them becoming a paramilitary force rotten with corruption. At best, the citizens will act as monitors to protect against bribe-taking by police. At worst, they will become an annoying type of civic morality police like they were during the Soviet Union, harassing kids with long hair and pedestrians for jay walking. I predict the movement will simply fizzle out quietly in the next few months or years though, as most initially promising political ideas are prone to do in Russia.

The real progress will come the day the Soviet Union ceases to have an influence on the institutions of the Russian Federation, whether that be through ideas or through people who were educated during it.

-Michael E. van Landingham


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