Thursday, April 12, 2007

Russia's unfinished revolution

Just over 90 years after the overthrow of the Tsarist autocracy in February 1917, Russia is due another revolution – this time against the authoritarian Putin regime, the oligarchs who ripped off former state assets and the clique of security and military officers who control the Kremlin. Between them they have impoverished large sections of the population and silenced any effective opposition. Only last week an absurd new law passed by Moscow’s city council restricts the number of people allowed to take part in political rallies to two for every square metre. Police can also break up political meetings if there are more people than chairs! The law is expected to be extended to all other cities, making it virtually impossible to demonstrate against the government. This follows a large anti-Putin demonstration in St Petersburg recently, which shocked the authorities and led to the arrest of over 113 protesters. In the same city, the Putin-controlled courts barred the liberal Yabloko party from contesting the March regional elections, leaving voters no choice at all. In fact, one of the "opposition" parties, Just Russia, is actually a Kremlin creation to siphon off votes! The Communist Party of the Russian Federation was barred from standing in several regions. Meanwhile, the Republican Party, has been dissolved altogether on the grounds that it has too few members. Under the latest laws, parties have to have 50,000 members and be represented in half of Russia’s provinces.

Little of this is reported on national television, which is under the control of the government. Reporting what goes on Russia in newspapers and magazines is a deadly business, literally. In December 2006 a march took place in Moscow – a memorial for the over 200 journalists killed since the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The most prominent was Anna Politkovskaya, who exposed the Kremlin’s dirty war in Chechnya. She was gunned down in October last year and no one has been apprehended for her murder. The impoverishment of the people is only matched by the corruption of state officials. Even on the government’s own admission, Russian officials are estimated to take bribes of US$240 billion a year, an amount almost equal to the state's entire revenues. Life expectancy has fallen dramatically since 1991, and now stands at just 58.7 years for men, compared with the West European average of 76.6. The United Nations has warned that Russia's population - which stood at roughly 145 million in a 2002 census - could fall by as much as a third by 2050. In terms of human rights and the rule of law, according to Professor Bill Bowring of Birkbeck College, Russia abandoned the process of legal reform in 2003. He told a recent seminar: "The architect of the procedural reforms, Dmitri Kozak, has been banished to the Caucasus. It has proved impossible to enact the laws necessary to introduce a system of administrative justice, without which effective remedies against official arbitrariness or inaction are impossible." Professor Bowring says that the overtly political nature of the prosecutions of leading businessmen who fell out of favour with the Kremlin "has destroyed any hope for independence of the judiciary or a fair trial". Russia has failed to abolish the death penalty and has lost several high-profile cases over Chechnya in the European Court of Human Rights. Professor Bowring, who has championed the Chechen cause in Europe, has himself been banned from Russia as a result. The Council of Europe itself has repeatedly condemned the use of torture and ill-treatment of Chechens by the Russian authorities. In the 20th century, Russia endured 75 years of revolution and counter-revolution, from the overthrow of the Tsar, the first socialist revolution, Stalin’s dictatorship, Gorbachev’s reforms and then the restoration of capitalism and authoritarian rule. The challenge for the 21st century is to complete the unfinished business.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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