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CYNICISM AT THE HUSTINGS

United Russia, the “party of power” that supports President Vladimir Putin, won a large majority in the Russian parliamentary elections on December 7, just as everybody knew it would. The results of the Russian presidential election next March are equally foreseeable: Putin wins by a landslide. So the question arises: can Russia ever be a real democracy' Putin himself is ambivalent on the question. “If by democracy one means the dissolution of the state, then we do not need such democracy...I don’t think that there are people in the world who want democracy that would lead to chaos.”

There was a frantic flurry of speculation last month when Putin’s government arrested Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s richest man and CEO of the Yukos oil company, the world’s fourth largest. It was particularly noted that if the fallen oligarch is convicted of the charges he faces, involving tax evasion, embezzlement and other corporate misdeeds, then the state will confiscate his assets, including the 40 per cent of Yukos’s shares that he owns personally..

Does this mean that Putin is setting out to reverse the privatization of state-owned industry that occurred after the end of the old Soviet Union in 1991' And have ordinary Russians grown so cynical about politics that they are effectively abandoning democracy from below even before it can be stolen from above'

Whither democracy'

Putin has no desire to recreate the old socialist economy, and he knows that actions like the persecution of Khodorkovsky are hugely damaging to Russia’s attractiveness to foreign investors. However, he may not be able to stop important allies who missed out on the first wave of privatizations. Besides, Khodorkovsky had shown an interest in politics, giving money to opposition parties, which was forbidden to the oligarchs by Putin.

The Russian people have persistently shown levels of support of between 70 and 80 per cent for Putin even as he manipulates them and tramples on their rights. Do they care about democracy, or is it just not a Russian thing'

The problem is that they have been fooled and betrayed so often. The “privatization” of state assets was carried out in 1992 by giving each adult Russian a voucher for 10,000 roubles to buy shares in the firms that employed them — but the assets were massively and deliberately undervalued. Gazprom, Russia’s biggest energy industry, for example, was valued at only $250 million, while its stock market value by 1997 was $40 billion.

Down with oligarchy

No sooner had the shares been distributed than an entirely avoidable inflation destroyed the value of the rouble (and everybody’s savings). Then came along the favoured friends of the Yeltsin “family”, clever young apparatchiks retooled as thrusting capitalist entrepreneurs, and bought up all the workers’ shares at bargain-basement prices. That is where Russia’s massively rich oligarchs come from, and why they and their system are hated.

Putin has now driven a number of the oligarchs into exile, and he knows very well that jailing Khodorkovsky can only add to his popularity. He has silenced or shut down every independent television network, and progressed towards bringing the print media under control. He has made some economic reforms, and the economy is now growing fast, but a third of Russia’s people are still desperately poor, the population is falling by a million a year, and growth has still not crawled back up to late Soviet levels 12 years after the fall of communism.

So why will around three-quarters of Russians vote for this cynical manipulator with few real achievements to his credit' Because the Russian people have become deeply cynical about “democracy” as they have experienced it, and respond to anyone who at least seems “strong”. It is a pattern alarmingly reminiscent of what happened to the Argentine voting public over a longer period of time, and left them so cynical that democracy in Argentina may be crippled for a generation. If the same thing has happened in Russia, it will be an even greater tragedy.

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