Russia’s election: Dictatorship or democracy?

November 30, 2007

Eric Margolis comments on the Duma elections

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Eric Margolis comments on the Duma elections


Story Transcript

Paul Jay talks to Eric Margolis

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Vladimir Putin’s last term as President of Russia is coming to an end in March 2008. But is he really prepared to give up power? Putin has placed his name at the head of the United Russia Party, likely to sweep the upcoming Duma (Parliamentary) elections taking place on December 2, 2007. Most Russians believe he’ll use the United Russia Party to create a base to retain personal power, possibly with the title of prime minister. Why else would a sitting president run for a seat in parliament? Joining to discuss Sunday’s election is Real News Analyst Eric Margolis. Well, so why is a sitting president running for a seat in parliament? What is Putin’s plan here?

ERIC MARGOLIS, REAL NEWS ANALYST: Well, he can’t serve a third term. It’s a violation of the Russian constitution, which he has pledged to uphold and observe. So now he has to transform himself into some other kind of political figure. What I really think he’s doing: there’s a wonderful scene in the great Sergei Eisenstein film, Ivan the Terrible, where the Tsar retreats from Moscow to a monastery outside the cities, giving up the secular life, and he waits until these throngs of Muscovites come with crosses in religious procession, kneel down in the snow, and beg him to return to the Kremlin and take power.

JAY: Putin is described, depending who you talk to, in two basic ways: He is someone who is an autocratic dictator, who’s trampled on human rights, reminiscent of the worst Soviet days, and so on; or the man that saved Russia from the kleptocracy of the 1990s, the chaos in the economy, mafia-styled oligarchs. Who do you think Putin is?

MARGOLIS: He’s not a Soviet-style figure by any means, and I think he firmly rejects anything communist. Back in the 1980s when I was covering Moscow, I was told by two very senior KGB generals I was the first western journalist to go into the the Lubyanka prison, the KGB headquarters—a very dramatic experience for me. And I was told by the KGB men that they were fed up with the communists. They wanted to ditch the Communist Party, get rid of these drunken buffoons, as they called them, and they wanted a leader who was like General Park Chung-hee, the South Korean military dictator, or like General Augusto Pinochet of Chile, who said, “We’re going to make these lazy Russians work at bayonet point”; we want a man on a white horse. And this is exactly what they’ve gotten: a dictator, but not a communist mass-murderer type of dictator.

JAY: But they have a dictator who claims to be fighting corruption and the oligarchs, but many people say he just has his own oligarchs and his own corruption.

MARGOLIS: Well, he does. Russia is not Switzerland. It’s a rough and tumble place, where you have all kinds of competing factions, and where the government’s security organs are in bed with lots of criminal gangs and mafias and ex-intelligence agents, and it’s hard to see where the government leaves off and gangsterism begins. So, it’s a very murky situation. But however bad it is now, it’s not as bad as it is was in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin.

JAY: We have now a Russian state with a real treasury. Are we seeing the rise of another power? And are we seeing the rise of a power, as a Russian journalist told us last week, perhaps something reminiscent of Germany in the early 1930s?

MARGOLIS: Oh, I absolutely think so. In fact, I frequently use the analogy, under the Yeltsin years, of the Weimar Republic in Germany, where corrupt weakness wasn’t really a democracy in Russia; it was a faux democracy, a veneer of democracy where everything was run by corruption. And the main power in Russia was actually the United States, by sending billions and billions of dollars in secret aid to the Russian oligarchs, trying to buy influence in Russia. The reaction to that was the rise of Putin. And now what we’re seeing is that Russia has gone sort of from being on its knees under Yeltsin—bankrupt, immoralized, dispirited—now Russia’s going back to being Russia again and resuming the conduct of its traditional foreign policy, which has to be in opposition to the western powers and to the United States.

JAY: Some people have praised Putin for standing up, for example, against the military attacks on Iran, as they see it as a countervailing power against a sort of unbridled, single-superpower world. I mean, is he also playing in some people’s eyes a positive role in this way?

MARGOLIS: Many people think so, particularly outside of North America. And in Europe I mention this, and certainly the Middle East and the Muslim world, they see Russia as the necessary counterbalance, China also counterbalances through American power run amok under the Bush administration. Untrammeled power, absolute power has corrupted absolutely. And a lot of people are longing for Russia to resume its opposition, just to keep the U.S. in check and to restore a sort of a balance of power in the world scene.