Democracy cast in anarchic light

This month: What looked like Russian democracy to the West in the 1990s felt like anarchy to Russia. The result? Russians still prefer a strong hand, rather than no hand at all.

People tend to have a number of preconceptions about Russia.

"Russian people deserve democracy." A stock phrase in the Bush administration's rhetoric, this holds little meaning for Russians, whose memory lacks the democratic experience. In the 1990s, democracy talk was rampant, but the majority of people in Russia were struggling through hard times. Fundamental values and social networks were crumbling, giving way to chaos in which force and money reigned supreme. As a result, the connotation of the word "democracy" has been compromised and is now strongly associated with the anarchy of the previous decade.

Smarting from that experience, many Russians are content to have a domineering state, as long as it does not interfere with their private lives. Most of them do not view the existing injustice, corruption and ineffectual courts as failures of a dysfunctional state.

Social scholars suggest other reasons, too, for Russian acceptance of their state. To create an effective protest one has to be well-connected and funded. Not many are ready to hit the streets, even though no other way of making a powerful statement to the authorities exists. Now in the economic tempest, less than 10 percent are ready to support public forms of protest.

One of the reasons cited for social lethargy is that power is in the hands of the state and oligarchs, who appear to be well under the state's control. The 1990s, when many governmental agencies were linked with oligarchs, are over. Over the past several years the super rich have proved obedient servants. According to banking statistics, for instance, the share of state-controlled banks among the top 200 credit institutions with largest assets grew to 50 percent from January to September 2008. In his report to the Russian Parliament on April 6, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the government had bought out from Western banks assets of Russian companies that were held as debt collateral. Now Russian business will have to repay loans not to the West, but to a state bank. If the debtors fail to do so, "the assets will be used for debt recovery." In other words, these assets will become the property of the government.

The trend is not new to Russian history. Richard Pipes writes in his book "Under the Old Regime" that the political weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie was forged by centuries of experience, that the way to wealth is not to fight with authorities, but rather to cooperate with them.

Finally, the most common statement about Russia is that Russians want to be a superpower. Polls show the majority of Russians support the government's efforts to turn the country into a strong player. Russia has not yet found firm ground on which to build its new identity. The nation does not know what it wants to become in 10 years, what its key goals are, and, most important, what its values are. Most approaches to dealing with this confusion are, therefore, adopted directly from the Soviet arsenal. The idea that the country should be feared and respected, as was the standard Sovietstyle justification for Russia's foreign policy, still dominates society.

What is the source of this sentiment? Some people believe it is instigated and fueled by the government and Putin. If he changed his rhetoric, they say, it would turn public opinion. Yet, he might have been out of politics if he had not spoken as he did. Or his ratings would have run as low as a few percent, like Boris Yeltsin in the mid-1990s. It turns out the government both manipulates and reflects the opinion of the Russian public. Russians have lived throuh 10 years of humiliation and self-deprecation. No more do they want to view themselves as a second-rate nation, barely counted in the world.

Another reason is the post-traumatic syndrome that followed the collapse of the U.S.S.R. This condition is typical of many disintegrated empires. It took the British 30 years to come to terms with their non-imperial status, though they lost an empire that had existed overseas. Russians never regarded the Crimea or the Caucuses as foreign regions and cannot bring themselves to recognize them as independent states.

In 10 to 20 years, Russia may overcome this, but now the memory of the ruined superpower is too vivid and painful. Besides, the easiest way to hold a national identity together is to create an image of a real or illusory enemy.

Svetlana Babaeva is RIA Novosti Bureau Chief in Washington, D.C.

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