By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
The New York Times
February 9, 2007
Russia today is a country that takes three hands to describe.
On the one hand, it is impossible any more to call Vladimir Putin’s government “democratic,” given the way it has neutered the Russian Parliament, intimidated or taken over much of the Russian press, subordinated the judiciary and coercively extended its control over the country’s key energy companies.
On the other hand, it is obvious talking to Russians how much the humiliating and dispiriting turmoil that accompanied Boris Yeltsin’s first stab at democracy — after the collapse of Communism — left many people here starved for a strong leader, a stable economy and stores with Western consumer goods. Mr. Putin is popular for a reason.
And on the third hand, while today’s Russia may be a crazy quilt of capitalist czars, mobsters, nationalists and aspiring democrats, it is not the totalitarian Soviet Union. It has more than a touch of the authoritarianism of postwar Gaullist France and a large spoonful of the corruption and messiness of postwar Italy — when those countries emerged from World War II as less than perfect democracies.
But 60 years later, after huge growth in their per capita incomes, France and Italy now help to anchor Western Europe. For all of their shortcomings, their postwar governments provided the context for the true democratic agent of change to come of age — something that takes 9 months and 21 years to produce — a generation raised on basically free markets and free politics. I still think Russia will follow a similar path — in time.
“In historical terms, the transition will be very fast,” Boris Makarenko, deputy chief of Russia’s Center for Political Technologies, said to me. “But I am 47. I am in a hurry. I am very optimistic [though] for my daughter, who is 15. … I can see the normal middle class rising here. It’s all about shape and pace. When will we get there, I don’t know — we will get there, but probably not fast enough for me to see.”
The Yeltsin democratic experiment is over, to be sure, added Rose Gottemoeller, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow office, “because it was delegitimized by the 1998 ruble crash and because it was a time of supreme corruption and dominance by oligarchs — but the Russian democratic experiment is not over because Russia is such a changed place.”
Ms. Gottemoeller, an American, told me she recently visited Ulyanovsk, Lenin’s birthplace, in the heart of Russia’s aging industrial rust belt, and went out to dinner with three Russian couples, all new entrepreneurs.
“After they plied me with drinks,” she recalled, “they said: ‘O.K., we have a question. We want to know how you define middle class’ — and did I think they were middle class? And that just flummoxed me. … They wanted to know what middle class was in America. It meant a lot to them to think they were linked up to a broader community of middle class. … [They] are not out in the streets with a banner, but their aspirations are huge and in the right direction.”
People who identify themselves as middle class often end up fighting for legal and civil rights to protect their gains, without even knowing they are fighting for them. That said, the pace of democratization here will most likely depend on three things.
One is whether this emerging middle class gets so preoccupied with material gains — thanks to the trickle-down of high oil and gas prices — that “it just disconnects from politics,” Ms. Gottemoeller noted. (Russia today has more cellphones than people!) Another is the genie of Russian nationalism, which can always pop up and derail democratization. Just down the street from my hotel, the Movement Against Illegal Immigration held a march denouncing Jews and immigrants.
Third is the price of oil and gas. Anyone who observes Russia can see that the price of oil and the pace of freedom here operate with an inverse correlation. As oil prices go down the pace of freedom goes up, because Russia has to open itself more to the world and empower its people to get ahead. As oil prices go up the pace of freedom goes down, because the government can get by drilling oil wells, rather than unleashing its people.
“When oil prices became higher, the reforms became slower,” said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a liberal Russian Duma member from Altay. “Russia became a more closed country with a more state-oriented economy. Last year we saw record oil prices and not one reform. [That is the] reason Freedom House last year proclaimed Russia a ‘non-free country. ’ … The question for you Americans is: When will prices go down? It is the only hope for us Russian democrats.”