Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Slippery Slope to Autocracy

26 May 2009

By Vladimir Ryzhkov

Authoritarianism is like a rock. Once it is dropped, it can only go in one direction -- down. Russia's path toward democracy was paved during former President Boris Yeltsin's presidency, but it has been steadily destroyed since Vladimir Putin became president in 2000.

Over the past eight years, the state has been gradually taking away the constitutional rights of Russians. First, the state crushed freedom of speech on television. Then, it deprived citizens of their elected representatives in the Federation Council. Next, it installed seven federal presidential envoys around the country to control governors because at that time they were still elected by the people. But in September 2004, after the Beslan terrorist attack, Putin used the tragedy as a pretext to cancel the elections of governors. From that point on, the notion of Russian federalism became fiction.

In 2007, the Kremlin then turned its sights on the parliament. Using the "fight against terrorism" as its justification, the state deprived voters of the right to elect individual deputies to the State Duma in single-seat electoral districts, replacing them with proportional representation for all Duma seats.

In addition, the Kremlin created United Russia, its own pocket political party. United Russia has established a monopoly over the country's political and legislative machine, creating a modern-day version of the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow and in the regions.

The Constitution also became a target for attack. President Dmitry Medvedev has already made major amendments to it, extending the term for president to six years and for Duma deputies to five years. Putin, who is anxious to return to the Kremlin in 2012, if not sooner, to rule the country as president for another 12 years, is clearly the chief beneficiary of this term increase.

What's more, Medvedev has made the servile Constitutional Court even more complaisant by giving the Kremlin the authority to essentially appoint the court's chairman and his deputies.

During all of these Putin and Medvedev years, the government has been methodically destroying its real enemies -- freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, parliament, opposition parties and nongovernmental organizations.

It also thrust its way into Russians' minds, forcing a pro-Kremlin and anti-Western ideology on them. This was necessary because the authoritarianism and the dismantling of the Constitution required a compelling ideological foundation. This was most vividly articulated during Putin's speech immediately after the Beslan siege ended, when he referred to "enemies" who have encircled Russia and who are craving to seize parts of its territory and rich resources.

One of the first attacks in this new ideological campaign was the revision of teaching manuals to correct passages in textbooks that had tarnished the country's "glorious past." Schoolchildren were told that Soviet leader Josef Stalin was an "effective manager" whose mass murders, forced hunger and state terror were "justified."

Medvedev's latest move, on May 19, was the creation of a presidential commission "for counteracting attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia's interests." This opens the door to deprive Russians the freedom to know the truth about their own history. Now, state bureaucrats will decide which interpretation of history should be considered "falsified" and which is "true."

Playing with history is frightfully familiar. Under Stalin, the regime's mistakes and crimes were whitewashed or completely expunged from the public record.

During Leonid Brezhnev's years, history books were revised to turn a relatively small military operation in 1943 at Cape Myskhako, near Novorossiisk, into a epochal battle of Stalingrad-like proportions. The Cape Myskhako battle became the subject of Brezhnev's bombastic autobiographical novel, "Malaya Zemlya," which was an attempt to inflate Brezhnev's role in World War II and to help improve his public image.

Now, it seems that the Kremlin is determined to distort global affairs and rewrite history to fit the Kremlin's paranoid worldview. It will be filled with enemies and Russophobes, plots and secret operations against Russia requiring that the new dictator mobilize all of his forces in the fight against internal and external enemies.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy.

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