December 10, 2003

B.D.'s Moscow Correspondent ...is in

B.D.'s Moscow Correspondent

...is in sullen mood:

Schto Delat’ (What Is To Be Done—a rhetorical question posed by Nikolai Chernoshevski)

We will wake up in a different country tomorrow,” Anatoly Chubais said in televised remarks last night. When I mistakenly walked in on him in a bathroom stall in the early hours of this morning, the only man in Russia with the gravitas to stand toe-to-toe with Mr. Putin still seemed, at least, to have a sense of humor. “Everything will be alright,” I told him, not quite convinced, as he washed his hands (a not entirely conventional practice among Russian men after going number one). “Still?” he asked, with a smile.

Not being Russian and having no stake in this country, it is a little embarrassing to admit that for the balance of today I have been holding back tears. There are a number of reasons underlining the destruction of liberal political forces that occurred here in the last thirty-six hours, and from where I sit, I can only say that the blame must be divided in portions that are not yet clear between ourselves (by whom I mean those who were fighting for what we perceived to be freedom), a voting public (51% turnout) seemingly doomed to apathy, and dark forces entirely committed to ensuring that recent events to the south of us have an isolated echo.

After a stunning electoral sweep on Sunday, all but a tiny handful of the already few independent voices in the Russian State Duma were steamrolled by a new onslaught of stukachi, hate-mongers and criminals and two-dimensional figures all-too-accustomed to doing what they are told. The dominant force in Russia’s new parliament is called, in frank terms shared with me over lunch by a Kremlin-associated political spin- master, “the pager faction.” They don’t even need cellphones, this individual noted, because the orders on which they will act are, as a rule, entirely one-sided.

Yesterday morning in Saint Petersburg, I sat across the table from a man who has served in each of the preceding three national assemblies since Russia became independent in 1991. Six years ago, Yulii Rybakov traded himself to Chechen terrorists holding civilians in the southern town of Budyennovsk for the release of several women and children. In the days of the Soviet Union, he was a political prisoner. With chiseled features and a statuesque, though aging, frame resonant of Charlton Heston, Mr. Rybakov, who spent a lifetime defending human rights, lost his seat by a few points to a local “businessman” whose campaign team was caught on camera several days prior buying votes.

By a somewhat more depressing margin, Irina Khakamada, co-chairwoman of the Union of Right Forces and a champion of small business, lost a seat in a northern district of that city to the ex-speaker of the last Duma, Gennadi Selyeznov—a former Communist pal who traded his party allegiance for the right to hang on as the nominal head of a rubber stamp parliament. The last individual to hold for more than a term the seat she lost was Galina Staravoitova, a first generation democrat many saw as a potential presidential candidate, before she was shot dead in the hallway of her apartment building in 1998. Her surviving sister, the impoverished babushka over whose shoulder I peered as she marked her ballot along with thousands of Russian émigrés in the United States who cast their own absentee ballots. Starovoitova’s own ghost would probably have wanted Khakamada to carry on in similar form, but as the results clearly stand, Irina will not be a part of the new Duma. I could look her in the eye this morning only because I knew we did, with limited time and resources, the best we could manage. Or so I’d like to believe.

When I asked an OSCE representative this morning whether their anticipated “harsh statement” would include the words “free and fair,” she paused. “We tend not to use this terminology if we can help it,” she said, “but privately I’d answer ‘maybe free, but definitely not fair.’”

The difference between last night’s exit polls and this morning’s preliminary results were, across the Russian Federation, technically within the margin of error. Two independent surveys with samples of more than 20,000 voters each suggested that both the Union of Right Force and Yabloko would squeak by and pass the five percent barrier. As the figures now stand, they each fell short by 1.2 and .8 percentage points respectively. Had these tiny margins been different, neither would still be a powerhouse in the new, ever-more-hobbled legislature. But the absence of their voices, and increased ascendancy of the nationalistic, revisionistic and altogether frightening ones that will occupy their seats makes me wonder, with frustration and sadness, shto delyat?

Whatever calculus may be used to configure the solutions we very much need, the answer is not, I am certain, to give up the fight. Whoever has failed—and I do not exclude myself from the company of the culprits—the simple fact remains that these people surely deserve better than the parliament they just received. My friend, to whom I may have given better advice if I could, led the Union of Right Forces faction that will not be present in this new Duma. Last night he drew a parallel between the current state of affairs and Germany in the late 1920s. Despite the fact that, in Russian, his name means “German,” he’s wrong. But it doesn’t look that way, and even in defeat, I will stand by him."

Oh, and Safire isn't too happy either.

Meanwhile, a WaPo masthead says we are kowtowing to the Chinese:

"Yesterday President Bush essentially placed the United States on the side of the dictators who promise war, rather than the democrats whose threat is a ballot box. His gift to visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was to condemn "the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan" while ignoring the sanguinary rhetoric of the man standing next to him. Mr. Bush had his reasons for doing so -- above all to avoid one more foreign policy crisis during an election year. But in avoiding a headache for himself, he demonstrated again how malleable is his commitment to the defense of freedom as a guiding principle of U.S. policy."

So what's the deal folks? Are we only democratizing in the Middle East these days--and giving Putin, Musharraf, Jiabao, and others a free pass?

Might, shudder, realpolitik still be alive and well in the Beltway--even amidst the alleged neo-con ascendancy (and assorted neo-Wilsonian exces de zele)?

Maybe, along with Jim Baker, Henry Kissinger should be brought out of retirement too!

Posted by Gregory at December 10, 2003 11:56 AM
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