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Scoop Editorial: Time To Get Uncomfortable

If democracy can be likened to a flower then in Russia the flower is wilting. Shortly it will probably be plucked and thrown into the compost heap. The results in the Russian Parliamentary elections - now nearly finalised - are a clear wake-up call to the West - and now is the time to start feeling uncomfortable. Scoop's Alastair Thompson reports.

The most remarkable aspect of the final result in the Russian Parliamentary elections has been the rise and rise of the "Unity" Party led by Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu. Unity is effectively a one-issue party built around strong public support for the war in Chechnya.

Its startling level of success proves clearly the power of nationalism (if any proof is needed) at an electoral level. The result for Unity further shows that a democratic election run in the absence of a free and fair media is a very dangerous thing.

And so these elections can be seen as a clear wake-up call for the "comfortable" West in advance of the Russian Presidential elections due mid 2000.

The Unity Party, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin and their business allies - notably the new Russian gas and oil billionaire Berezovsky - have shown during this election that they are willing to do anything to win power.
So far this has included manufacturing a war in Chechnya and then rattling the nuclear sabre at the West when it objects. As the run-up to the Presidential elections begins they can be expected to work even harder to ensure they remain in power.

Democracy can in these circumstances become a double edged sword. A fascist who arrives in power through a coup is bad enough. But a dictator who is elected - e.g. Adolf Hitler - is far more powerful and worse - because he can claim a popular mandate.

There will be many commentators and diplomats in the West who, in the wake of these elections, will claim that this is a step forward. That the more "pro-market" forces arrayed behind Vladimir Putin will be able to get on with the job of reforming the Russian economy now - no longer hamstrung by a Parliament dominated by the communists. But in the same breath these same commentators will however confess that they know nothing about what Unity and Putin really stand for.

This is a classic case of willful blindness. It is simply not credible to suggest that the same Russian elite which has presided over the collapse of the Russian economy - to the benefit of its friends and cronies - over the last decade will now turn the tide against itself.

Former Russian PM Chubais - one of those arrayed behind Putin - was one of the leading architects of the economic disaster that is modern day Russia. Important Kremlin allies such as Berezovsky - who have become hugely wealthy as a result of a corrupt privatisation programme - are unlikely to want to see any "real" reforms undertaken to fix the countless wrongs in the Russian economy.

Prime Minister Putin has made it abundantly clear what he stands for. He and his supporters stand for war, retribution, nationalism, cronyism, bigotry and jingoism. They have shown absolutely no qualms over the manipulation of the media. And they show no signs thus far of having any clues of how to deal with reviving the Russian economy.

Worst of all among the many shadows cast by Putin and his allies is the absence of any credible explanation yet for the apartment bombings in Moscow which killed several hundred Muscovites and led to the Chechen war.

If, as many people suspect, these "terrorist" bombings were in fact manufactured by Putin and his allies for the purpose of justifying the war in Chechnya, then we can truly say we are dealing here with monsters.

So what happens next?

The increasingly popular Prime Minister Putin, the Kremlin, Unity, their cronies - and apparently most of the media both in Russia and elsewhere - now believe the Presidency is Putin's for the taking. And at this stage they are doubtless correct. Which is why the recent Parliamentary elections are a wake-up call to the rest of us.

Over the coming six months the Russian media and public can be expected to continue to be manipulated - and the Chechen war fought - with the sole purpose of securing Putin's win in the upcoming Presidential race.

For the world as a whole, a Putin win in the Russian Presidential race would be a disaster.

Inside Russia many of the oppressed and increasingly cynical public appear to have already decided that they may be better off under a Putin style police state. Should Putin win the Presidency he will arguably have the mandate to try to implement just this.

The desperate Russian public can be forgiven for taking this view, afterall, what has Glasnost brought them so far other than pain?

However for the West to now watch quietly as Russia falls back into totalitarianism would be foolish in the extreme.

Fortunately the final count in the Parliamentary vote this morning indicates the right and hard-right parties do not have a clear majority in the Russian Duma (Parliament). Thus, while the Duma is unlikely to be much of an obstacle to Putin's plans, it may at least not serve as a poodle and further entrench the position of the nationalists in the lead up to the Presidential race.

Also on the positive side of the ledger is the particularly strong showing of the Fatherland party of Yevgeny Primakov in the more developed Western and urban regions of the Russian Federation. This may indicate that there are rising public concerns, at least in the cities, about just what Putin's plans are.

If the flower of democracy is to thrive in Russia then the hopes and dreams of the Russian people need to be addressed. If the only alternative to extreme poverty is totalitarianism then it will not be surprising if that is the direction that Russia takes.

At present the Russian people feel deserted. They feel that the Western powers undermined the institutions that had made their nation strong, and then left them to the mercy of bandits, thieves and liars.

The West must now try to engage the hearts of the Russian people and revive their hope for a better future. We must convince the Russian public that there is an alternative to the strong police state that many of them are starting to fondly recall. We must convince the Russian public that the 21st Century holds the promise of prosperity for all - not just the privileged classes in the West.

But how can we do this?

Firstly, engagement with the Russian public will only be possible if the West accepts that it too made many mistakes in Russia - and probably in Kosovo and Yugoslavia too.

Secondly, the West cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the excesses of the Kremlin both in Chechnya and in Russia. If Western powers and Western media accept and legitimise the electoral abuses recently witnessed in Russia then how can the Russian public be expected to take a different view.

Thirdly a free and independent media in Russia needs to be supported - the remnants of a free press in Russia are still alive in name - albeit barely - and they urgently need encouragement and support.

Fourthly the opposition parties in Russia - including ironically the communists - need backing to allow them to stand up to bullies such as Berezovsky.

Finally, we need - all of us - to open our eyes and keep watch on what is going on. For far too long we have ignored Russia and its decline assuming it is not our problem or responsibility.

Last week the Russian Nuclear forces commander lowered the threshold level for the use of Nuclear Weapons. This is our problem.

In the last few weeks the realisation that democracy is Russia is rapidly coming off the rails has been something of a revelation for the West.

Now is the time to start feeling uncomfortable about the future of the Russian bear - and to do something about it. We have a six month window of opportunity - lets use it!

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