Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Russia: Clawing its way back toward the abyss?

When the Soviet Union and its bloc of satellite slave colonies went into political disintegration, most of the "free world" rejoiced.

There were, of course, skeptics.

At the fringe were what my friend David Gonzalez refers to as "tinfoil turban" types who believed (and probably still do) that nothing of the sort was happening -- that those damn Communists were just trying to put the West off its guard and that the T-72s would come rolling across the Fulda Gap some time Real Soon Now.

The more moderate skeptics, on the other hand, had a good case: A resurgence of Communism, or possibly the birth of some other sort of monolithic state, were real risks. As Jean-Francois Revel pointed out in Democracy Against Itself, 70 years of dictatorship had destroyed the very institutions -- a market economy and an open political process -- which these states would desperately need in order to pull themselves out of poverty and tyranny. Until and unless those institutions could be recreated and nurtured to maturity, the constant tendency would be to retreat into the "safety" of the known, however horrible it might be, rather than face the risks and uncertainties entailed by the journey toward freedom.

Those moderate skeptics have been proven right time and again. The rise of KGB strongman Vladimir Putin slowed Russia's sluggish march toward market and political freedom, brought it to a halt and turned it in the other direction.

Putin's ascent did not occur in a vacuum -- polls over the years have shown that a remarkable percentage of Russians view the age of Stalin with affectionate nostalgia. With, to all appearances, the support of most Russians, Putin has ever more brazenly moved to restrict political freedom while simultaneously bringing the market back under direct state control (as opposed to the control of the "oligarchs," all too many of whom ended up as "businessmen" via sugar-daddy connections from their own Communist Party pasts anyway -- the emergence of a free market in Russia has always been two parts wishful thinking and one part shoddy veneer).

Over the last few years, Putin has consolidated his new police state -- and don't believe for a minute that it's anything else -- knee-capping the emerging free press, stealing "free" enterprises after first giving them time to fatten up on foreign capital investments, and, as of this week, ramming through a new "regulatory" regime on "non-governmental organizations" which interest themselves in minor concerns like human rights in the "former" Soviet Union.

Yesterday, the last outspoken advocate of freedom in Putin's administration resigned [hat tip to Tim Starr]. Andrei Illarionov, to all appearances a full-blown libertarian, had found himself in increasing conflict with Putin's policies. Apparently, the breaking point was that he was to be muzzled from further criticisms:

"I considered it important to remain here at this post as long as I had the possibility to do something, including speaking out," he said, according to ITAR-Tass. "Until recently, no one put any restrictions on me expressing my point of view. Now the situation has changed."

Hopefully, Illarionov will be left in peace, or at least allowed to leave the country. But I wouldn't count on it. The archipelago described so eloquently by Solzhenitsyn is still very much in business, and there's a new Stalin in town.

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